Thursday, November 29, 2007

Notes on Nandigram and


It was a day’s trip. On November 18, the Sunday before the last one, I travelled to Nandigram with a small group of people from different non-governmental organizations. We went first to the relief camp in Brajamohan Tewari Shikshaniketan, and then travelled down the road past Sonachura to Bhangaberia bridge. Some of the people who spoke to us were hesitant to be named or photographed, but many were willing that we should know their names. That seemed important to them, like a signature to all that they were saying.

Just before we left Calcutta, I met a woman from Adhikaripara, who had escaped to Calcutta. She had been one of the victims of the March 14 violence when, while at the puja where women and children had gathered, she was hit with a lathi, then had fallen choking and dazed with tear gas fumes into a field, from where she was dragged away and possibly raped by three men. She does not remember very well, but she still bleeds heavily if she tries to do any physical work.

But why was she in Calcutta? In the months after March, she and other women in the neighbouring villages, had built up small women’s groups of resistance. Now that “they”, the CPI(M), had “recaptured” the villages, she was on the run.

I asked her if they had been told that the police might use force that day at the puja. She said no one expected it; they had been told the police might come, but they would go away when they saw so many women and children. This was my first personal encounter with the enigmatic meshing of agency, consciousness, memory, victimhood and political play in Nandigram, something that would wrap itself around me more confusingly through the day.

As we approached Nandigram, we were overtaken by a heavyweight police convoy. The director-general of police, Anup Vohra, was entering Nandigram to hold a meeting in the police station. Later that evening, it was reported that the meeting had been about a change in the positions of CRPF camps; within another day, it was not so.

We saw CRPF personnel and vehicles, usually clustered in the town and around junctions with bazaars and shops on the way, and occasionally standing by the almost empty road. It felt cold on a sunny day to see a soldier standing under the thatched roof of a mud hut by the roadside, gun poised. Green fields, shady groves and shimmering ponds stretched for miles around us, and behind him, as we passed.

The vista of the enormous and beautiful school with its green grounds, familiar now to every newspaper reader and TV viewer in Bengal, opened like magic the moment our car passed through the gates in a narrow, crowded street. In spite of the twelve to thirteen hundred people who were there that morning — apart from the many men running the camp — the area looked tidy, orderly. The population there is a fluctuating one; reports say that almost half the people we may have seen there that day have gone back to their homes in the week that has followed.

In the rough estimates we were given, there were around 2,400 people taking shelter there on November 7, although the school had to be thrown open to house the hundreds running for cover on the afternoon of November 6. That night the refugees had to live on dry food, such as puffed rice, and full-fledged cooking started the day after. The state government had provided a one-time relief of 25 quintals of rice. The first three days a religious organization had provided all foodstuff except rice. Since then, meals each day were dependent on the efforts of individuals and organizations bringing foodstuff and clothes, and on the untiring efforts at collecting relief and food by a Trinamul Congress panchayat pradhan. On November 8, around 3,200 to 3,500 people had eaten in the camp, the highest number the camp had seen.

The cooking takes place in the yard behind the main building, in huge iron woks simmering on clay ovens. The cooks are men from close by, stirring, pouring and serving with almost professional steadiness the enormous amounts of food to be distributed on perfectly crafted sal plates sewn with white thread. There are tube-wells for water. In one wing of the main building is a temporary clinic, where doctors come and sit, because the health centre that had been kept going since trouble first broke is now under the control of the most recent captors. The people have taken shelter in the large classrooms, emptied of their benches, and carpeted with plastic sheets. A microphone is used to summon them to their meals.

The relief material we had taken was collected by people delegated for this particular job, one of whom wrote out a receipt. A woman with pleading eyes asked me when she would get a second sari, she was still wearing the one she had on when she came away. “You have brought saris for us?” asked another little knot of women. “But when will we get them?” One of them said that she wished we had given the saris to the local leader of her village instead of donating them centrally.

Within the appearance of order, disorder was intangible, but oppressive. Children ran about, playing, when they should have been at school. Girls of eight or ten, with babies on their hips and with adult faces, joined the women when they talked of misery, loss and fear. At the same time, the children of the school which housed the homeless could not come to class. The shelter was fragile. The Madhyamik test was due, and the principal wanted the school cleared. “We have requested him to conduct the test in the upstairs classrooms,” said one of the men. “Where will I go?” asked a terrified middle-aged woman. “My home has been broken down, it is empty. Everyone has gone I do not know where. My younger daughter’s in-laws live close by, they will not have me. And I will be killed if I go back. For 13 days I have been here and I still can’t go back.”

What about school in the 11 months that they were in their villages, when “we had control”, as one of the men said? It was irregular, said almost all the children and women we spoke to. There were bouts of shooting and rumours of trouble almost constantly, and very often, parents kept children at home. And not everyone who had escaped was in the camp. Only those who had nowhere else to go had come there. The others had gone to relatives and friends, to Calcutta, to Burdwan and Birbhum, to Jamshedpur and Ranchi, to Punjab, to Haryana.

The numbers in the camp fluctuated because many of those who went home came back, bringing with them accounts of devastation and looting, rape, fines and terror. The looting was done systematically, with van rickshaws being loaded with furniture, sometimes even with doors and windows taken off their hinges. Anyone who returned ran the risk of having his bike or bicycle taken away, if he had one, and if the looting of his home had not been completed satisfactorily. Houses had been smashed in with ‘dredgers’, we were told. “But how would you know that?” I asked. A man, who had come from Calcutta to check on his in-laws, said he had seen the machine. A woman from Satengabari joined in: “I saw one being brought over as I was running away.”

One young woman from Gokulnagar had taken shelter with her parents in Nandigram. Men with pistols had come to that house too, gone into all the rooms to see if she had brought away any of her in-laws’ “good things” from her village. They had even checked the henhouses, she said.

We found an unsettling echo later as we stood at Bhangaberia bridge talking to men who had taken shelter in Khejuri for 11 months. “Even if we have returned, what can we do?” said one. “Everything has been looted.”


“Everything has been looted,” said the man I started speaking to first after he appeared out of nowhere when we stood at the foot of Bhangabera bridge, now festooned with CPI(M) flags. He said he had spent 11 months in one of the camps in Khejuri with 87 other families. His remark was almost an echo of the repeated complaint we had heard at the relief camp in Brajamohan Tewari Shikshaniketan earlier. Almost, because this complaint was not filled in with any detail. Not one of the many details of things and methods of looting that had been given us by different people in the school. This, instead, was a statement, one of many that were pronounced by him and others who joined us; there was no scope to ask questions. At the same time, there was no reason to disbelieve him. A large number of his Bhoomi Uchchhed Pratirodh Committee antagonists had once been CPI(M) workers. Why should their methods be different?

What was strikingly different from the relief camp that afternoon on November 18 was the atmosphere at the foot of the bridge. Our little group, having left the relief camp in the school in Nandigram town, had travelled down the road past Sonachura along roads strangely empty even for a Sunday afternoon, stopped once at the red-flag-and-banner cloaked Sonachura bazaar, and had reached the bridge spanning Talpatti canal.

It is good to think that now these roads and paths have more people, going back home, trying to go on with the business of their lives. At the bridge, my friend, who was the only other woman in the group, asked two women crossing it towards Khejuri how they were, how things were. “We do not know anything,” they said.

The three or four men who appeared first were somehow different from the few who joined us later. The gentleman I spoke to could have been a member of the relief camp we had just left. But he started the conversation with a theme that would become more strident and accusing as time wore on, taken up with increasing aggressiveness by the others, silencing all questions, all efforts at reasoned exchange — “Where were you all these 11 months?”

The originary moment for the women in the relief camp had been March 14. For the men at the bridge it was the hideous lynching and burning of Sankar Samanta in January. “Can you imagine how it hurt us, how we felt? And no one came to see how we passed these 11 months, and now you come with relief and sympathy for those who laid mines?” It would have been inhuman to mention that Samanta’s terrible death was not the first one that January: three deaths had preceded it, and one of the dead was a teenager.

One of Samanta’s brothers was called; his eyes were red and he kept describing over and over exactly how his brother had died while he had to watch, and said he could not speak without feeling his heart would burst. Yet, none of them had got any sympathy. “They want us never to return,” they said, “They wanted to do a CPM nidhan yajna.” The last phrase was repeated like a burden to a song.

I tried to ask, at three different times during the choric tirade, that even if “we”, unconcerned visitors from the city, had not come, surely their leaders had visited them during these months. The full question could be articulated only once. It was answered with another description of the pain they felt at Samanta’s murder and the rape and murder of Sumita Mondal. Twice more my incomplete query was drowned with accusations of partisan behaviour, with repeated questions as to whether “we” had ever thought what they were eating in their relief camps, how their wives and children were. Anindita Sarbadhicary was the only one who visited them, we were told. That was answer enough.

While I kept trying to work out how it was our fault that we had come to visit them when we could, I managed to gather that 1,500 people had been in five relief camps, and that all of them had returned home after November 6. I was grateful, for the numbers taking shelter in Khejuri had always mystified me, changing from 400 to 900 to 3,000 and then to 5,000.

But an important change had occurred about five minutes into our efforts at conversation. A youngish man appeared from the direction we had come, parked his bike and demanded to know exactly who we were. He was far better dressed than any of the others, and he announced his name like a readied weapon. There were suddenly a few more people around us, thirty-something or a bit younger, strongly built, aggressive in stance, expression and voice. The theme of where we were these 11 months took on a different edge with the leading man’s entry, and he immediately focussed his rage on my friend, who handed him her business card when he called for proof of identity.

After he had asked us what we did and what the registration numbers of our NGOs were, my friend asked him, politely, what he did. “I am bekar (unemployed),” he announced, “I manage with farming.” “Oh, you’re a farmer, then you’re not unemployed,” my friend exclaimed. His hostility, which was showing itself in growing rudeness, seized on this response and instantly made it unrecognizable. “See, see,” he cried to his men (who had been passing round comments of “anti-CPM” and “Brought relief to that camp” within my hearing), “they want peasants’ sons to remain peasants. They don’t want us to have industry here. They don’t want us to have the money they have. Look at the clothes she is wearing. How much salary does she get? How dare you people come here? We don’t want your help. You can go help the Maoists.”

Maoists had been there since January, they said, singing English songs and Nazrulgeeti, and helping villagers cut through the roads. Students from Calcutta University and Jadavpur University came and made friends with the simple women of the villages, then stayed on to make guns and lay mines. Medha Patkar had come four or five times — and he was not going to check up on the dates, why should he? — with twelve people in the car and always left with two. He knew our type, he said, it was no wonder that we should not want them to have the good things we had.

I cannot reproduce the exact order and simultaneity of the non-conversation and series of insults that ensued. There was a tremendous noise of raised male voices, and each of the comments above was taken up by the other men at regular intervals and chanted. I remember one of our companions saying that they were mistaking the meaning of my friend’s response, but that did not make any difference. “She is rubbish,” the not so gentle man kept repeating, and his friends joined in hasty chorus. My friend’s quiet response to his insulting remarks and her simultaneous refusal to give any ground had infuriated him. But there was something practised in that fury, and in its rhythmic repetitions.

He was persuaded away, it seemed, as if from the brink of the unsayable. While he talked, no one else was allowed to speak. “No side conversations,” I was told, “no one is to speak.” But, suddenly, the leading man decided to take me aside to give me names of Maoists. I first walked away, saying I would not speak to him if he kept insulting my friend. But the names of Maoists were important enough for him to stop yelling “She is rubbish” to prompt the others to keep up the refrain. He drove the others away and ordered me to write the names down. I started with the names of a father and son.

“Did you, or anyone else here, see them, speak to them?” I asked. There was a moment of speechless rage. “Don’t you or your friends know how to talk?” he shouted. “Don’t you understand which questions are relevant? How could we see them? They ran away because we came.”

“Since you have the names, I have to ask how you know.”

“By looking at me you should know what questions to ask, what you are permitted to ask. Can’t you see who you are speaking to? You cannot ask any question you wish.” Irrelevant as judged, I worried about the women in his household.

“Give the names,” someone prompted. So I wrote some more, one of a man who was supposed to have been a workman at the weapons factory at Golbari. “But someone must have seen them if they were here for so long,” I dared the impermissible. “Yes, yes, call the two boys,” said the prompter, mentioning two names. “These boys were staying here throughout,” he added.

A young man, almost a boy, spoke to me about one Maoist, who, he said, had been there from the beginning. The young man looked as though a storm had blown over him; his eyes were sunken, dull, his voice so low I could barely hear it, his words expressionless. He spoke with much prompting. An older man with him spoke with greater certainty, and with politeness.

By the time we were finished, I realized that the temperature around me had risen another notch, quite inexplicably. As we walked towards our car, there was a sudden tuning up of hostility, and a rush towards the car. A contact number one of the men had given to my friend had to be blotted out at the leading man’s direction, and he gave a quick shouted order to search the car. They had heard a bang in it. My friend did say they had no right to do that, but before things got worse the driver just opened the doors casually and said, “Go ahead.”

While the others went through it and we sat inside, the leading man pointed to my friend’s bag and shouted, “How much does that bag cost?” “Oh,” said another, “and the car? Isn’t that industry? Doesn’t it need petro-chemicals?” Our driver moved swiftly, whirring the engine into life and shooting away over the first uneven stretch of road on the long way back to Calcutta.

He said later that he had seen one of the men lift a piece of rubble. I am sorry I missed that last sight.