'Operation Recapture' shows the ruthlessness of a victorious army subjugating the conquered land. However, for how long can the CPM dominate Nandigram by brute force? A graphic account of what really happened
Rajat Roy Nandigram/Kolkata
It seems all quiet in Nandigram now. Around 1,200 CPM supporters, who were driven out of their homes, have returned. The West Bengal police, who were unable to enter the villages since March 14, 2007, after the first 'police-CPM-engineered' massacre of villagers and farmers in which 14 were 'officially' killed, are pumping their chests. Paramilitary forces are conducting flag marches to reassure the people. Relief workers, medical teams and media are being allowed access. The roads and street-corners are adorned with red flags of the CPM. Young, aggressive men in motorbikes are patrolling the area — often operating as armed cadre of the ruling party.
The defeated and demoralised leaders of the Bhumi Uchchhed Pratirodh Committee (BUPC) have fled to the neighbouring districts. Some of them are still around, but they have taken shelter in a relief camp. When things were at its peak, there were at least six to seven relief camps sheltering over 15,000 people. Now, only one relief camp is functioning at the BMT High School in Nandigram Bazaar, where about 600-700 people are still waiting for their turn to return home. Nandigram has been truly recaptured by the CPM.
According to official estimates, the toll of 'Operation Recapture' is pegged at four dead and 10 injured, while a few rape cases were reportedly recorded with the administration. But unofficial estimates put the death toll at 20 or more and BUPC claims that at least 32 people are still missing. In the prevailing atmosphere of several disappearances, eliminations, mistrust and fear, where the state administration's role is not above suspicion, it is still difficult to come to a realistic estimate.
The arrest of Tapan Ghosh (CPM's West Midnapur district committee member) and Sukur Ali (CPM's Garbeta zonal committee secretary), while smuggling out three people with bullet injuries, gives strength to the BUPC allegation that the CPM might have kidnapped a number of injured people, later, killed them, and destroyed all evidence. The criminal history of Ghosh and Ali is widely known. They were arrested at Egra near Nandigram on November 10, when the local TMC people gheraoed a convoy of four cars and found out that injured people were being abducted.
Since the CBI chargesheeted them as main culprits of the Chute Angora murder case, they have been evading the law. On January 4, 2001, at Chute Angora, five Trinamool Congress (TMC) supporters were murdered allegedly by CPM activists. The CBI investigation found Ghosh and Ali as the masterminds of those killings and they were chargesheeted along with 13 others. But the police, incidentally, declared them 'absconders' — although they have been prominently seen in many party programmes. Despite the court declaring them proclaimed offenders and ordering their property to be attached, nothing has been done to that effect. Indeed, even now, after their arrest, CPM leaders like Benoy Konar (who has been rather belligerent and crude recently) and Deepak Sarkar have proclaimed that these two are “assets” of the party.
That CPM had mobilised forces from other districts to 'Liberate Nandigram'. This was initially proved by Governor Gopalkrishna Gandhi's public utterances: “Large number of armed persons from outside the district have, it is undeniable, forced themselves into villages in Nandigram Block 1 and 2 for territorial assertions.” Sukur Ali and Tapan Ghosh were among those outsiders. A few days after the arrest of Ghosh and Ali, the CID arrested Selim Laskar, a hardened criminal, from a guest house in nearby Geonkhali, an hour's drive from Nandigram, and recovered a number of sophisticated firearms from him. Selim is from South 24 Parganas and has close ties with some senior leaders of the CPM there. Now, some district party leaders are admitting that the CPM did mobilise cadres and musclemen from West Midnapur, South and North 24 Parganas and Hoogly.
The CPM 'recaptured' these villages between November 5 and 12. A meticulous plan was drawn by the CPM leaders. According to party sources, state secretariat member Shyamal Chakrabarty was entrusted with overseeing 'Operation Recapture' by the state party leadership. The state administration was kept in the loop, and accordingly, on November 2, just when the CPM musclemen were warming up for their final assault on Nandigram, the police were moved out from all bunkers and camps around Nandigram. The only police picket in Tekhali Bridge, the dividing line between the CPM and BUPC, was withdrawn.
The CPM brought in their musclemen from adjacent districts and supplied them with firearms and local guides. All the entry points were closed and supply lines of the BUPC cut off.
Then the final assault began.
When the entire state was busy celebrating the festival of 'Kalipuja', the CPM cadres and musclemen with the tacit support of the state police were preparing for a different kind of Diwali in Nandigram. This time the CPM leaders and vigilant groups were well-prepared: they were better armed and they used that to their advantage. Realising that the BUPC strength was more concentrated in Sonachura and Garchkaraberia, the CPM 'force' diverted its attack on Satengabari, Takapura, Gokulnagar, Bhangabera and Kalicharanpur. Once those villages fell to the CPM, they took a number of villagers hostage and using them as a human shield entered Sonachura and Garchakraberia.
It is true that in the initial stage the BUPC tried to put up a fight, but they were overpowered by superior firepower and armed strength. On November 7, when the CPM forces broke through their resistance and started entering into the heart of Nandigram, local BUPC supporters sought police intervention. The officer-in-charge of the Nandigram police station pleaded helplessness: “I have been instructed by the SP not to send forces till five in the evening, no matter how bad the situation is.” Later, in Kolkata, Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya would justify this inaction of his police forces by saying that after the March 14 incident it was a conscious decision not to send the police there.
On November 10, the final blow was dealt when the BUPC brought out a number of unarmed processions in areas which were still under their control to regain their moral and political ground and also to draw attention of the outside world to their plight. According to the villagers who participated in one procession, it was at least 15,000 strong. The procession came under fire and they saw several people falling on the ground or seriously injured after being hit by bullets. This was, locals say, another massacre of unarmed protestors, the details of which are still fuzzy.
The last resistance of the BUPC was broken. The CPM cadres started entering into villages. First came the motorbikes, then people came on foot in processions and CPM's red flags started fluttering from house tops, trees, lamp-posts — everywhere. Then it was time for retribution.
It is true that when the CPM cadres were forced to leave their homes between January 3 and March 14, some of their houses were looted and burnt by angry mobs. Now, the CPM started looting and torching the houses of BUPC members. Paying them back in the same coin, as Buddhadeb Bhattacharya would say, publicly defending extra-constitutional violence by the CPM cadre.
Finally, after the houses burnt, hundreds turned homeless, the reported killings, rapes, abductions, human shields and mass beating, the CPM leaders in Kolkata announced with a tone of finality that peace has been restored in Nandigram. The chief minister echoed this moment of truth by asking the people who fled their villages to return home without any fear.
This is not mere coincidence that the state administration announced compensation for the victims of the March 14 police firing at the same time when a largescale attack had already been launched by CPM musclemen to recapture Nandigram. On hindsight, it could be seen as a clever ploy to deflect attention from ground zero to bureaucratic nitty-gritties.
Indeed, only the governor of West Bengal was not misled by any such move. On November 9, while the operation was going on, Gandhi issued a statement castigating the state government for its inaction and said in no uncertain terms that the forcible recapture of Nandigram by outsiders was completely unlawful and unacceptable. The state administration kept quiet but the CPM leadership blew its top. A belligerent Biman Bose, the state secretary, alleged that the governor was transgressing on his constitutional jurisdictions. He uncannily reminded Gandhi that some of his predecessors could not complete their term in West Bengal.
While the civil society in Kolkata, West Bengal and across India protested in outrage at this brazen violation of constitutional norms and the State-sponsored violence in Nandigram, the CPM cadres continued their organised, nasty and brutish operation. New Delhi sent paramilitary forces at the behest of the state government, but the CRPF was not allowed entry till 'Operation Recapture Nandigram' was over.
Even when the CRPF was deployed at Nandigram, the state police, instead of assisting them, started putting up one obstacle after another. Reports of friction between the state police and CRPF are now widespread. With the entry of CRPF jawans as peacekeepers, the people expected they would get protection from the continuous intimidation and harassment unleashed by the CPM activists there. Since the law permits the CRPF to operate only under the state administration, they are dependent on the police on crucial matters — restoring peace and the rule of law, locating troubled spots and identifying known criminals, etc. To their dismay, the CRPF discovered that the state police are not only uncooperative, but they are often actively moving to subvert the process.
When CRPF jawans arrested some CPM goons for intimidating villagers, the state police came to their rescue. Some of those arrested by the CRPF were released by the police. So much so that the exasperated DIG, Alok Raj, complained against the police for obstructing them in performing their duty. A CRPF officer said, “We nabbed four persons on motorbikes and handed them over to the police. They were released. We arrested a notorious criminal, Anup Mondal, who has several criminal cases against him. He was released by the police as well. We were told to bring about peace in the area, yet, if we cannot instill confidence among the villagers, the morale of our personnel will go down.”
Nandigram is calm now, though the sound of occasional firing can be heard from Khejuri, the CPM stronghold. There are spontaneous celebrations of the 'victorious CPM', who wants to hammer it into the people's mind that CPM is and will remain the 'master and lord' of that area. Locals are afraid of talking to outsiders. A number of 'freshly burnt' houses standing along the ruins of the houses burnt earlier stand as witness to the relentless violence and the people's struggle against the SEZs.
The CPM is now busy establishing its control here. Punitive taxes or fines are being imposed on BUPC sympathisers. The local CPM has issued diktats to the helpless people to fall in line. Simply put, they will have to join the CPM, their processions and conform to the rules set by the local party honchos. Those who were activists, for them more brutal trials are awaited — their houses have been looted and torched. In some cases, they were reportedly subjected to physical harassment and torture forcing them to return to the relief camp again.
The operation shows all signs of the ruthlessness of a victorious army trying to subjugate the conquered land. There is hardly any attempt to win the hearts of the poor people who, till the other day, were mostly with the CPM. Of the 17 gram panchayats, 10 are with the CPM and rest with the TMC. The assembly seat of Nandigram is with Left Front partner CPI. Till the time the government came out with a notification for acquisition of land for setting up of a chemical hub here, the people of Nandigram were not really in a mood to rebel or resist. But, as members of the BUPC pointed out, the fear of losing their land and livelihood forced the people to unite in resisting the ruling establishment. Thus, among the top ranking leaders of BUPC one finds Md. Sufian, sabhapati of the Panchayat Samiti, and Abu Taher, both of them were once important CPM leaders of the area.
It won't be out of place if we compare the Keshpur experiment with the current scenario. Around 2000-2001, CPM and TMC fought a pitched battle in Keshpur and Garbeta in West Midnapur. The TMC, with initial support from the locals, drove out CPM activists and established control over a vast terrain with the help of musclemen and smuggled arms. Hence, they won the Pashkura Lok Sabha by-election. The CPM took some time to regroup and then hit back with full backing of the state government.
Led by Sushanta Ghosh, a minister in the Left Front government and assisted by Tapan Ghosh, Sukur Ali and others, they recaptured the area by mustering a bigger force. While the bloody turf war between the ruling party and the opposition was going on, there was not a single voice of protest from the civil society in West Bengal or elsewhere.
Unlike Keshpur, this time, the fear of losing their land and livelihood to the proposed chemical hub has united CPM and TMC supporters of Nandigram, among other, ordinary farmers, women, Dalits and Muslims, who constitute the majority here. The BUPC leadership comprises the TMC, CPM dissidents, Congress, SUCI and other groups and individuals. Initially, the BUPC decided to act together irrespective of their individual party colours. But after March 14, when the Bhattacharya government announced that it won't be pushing the chemical hub in Nandigram, it tasted its first major success. And with that a new turf war started within the BUPC.
Ignoring their earlier commitment, TMC leaders began to control the movement under the party with an eye on panchayat elections scheduled in May, 2008. Around that time, Kanu Sanyal, veteran Naxalite leader, noticed with shock that overnight Nandigram had been turned into a TMC bastion, with TMC flags fluttering from every visible corner. Later, TMC leader Shubhendu Adhikari reportedly announced that no political party other than the TMC would be allowed to function here.
Reportedly, the BUPC was started collecting money from the locals for buying guns and ammunitions. Not all of these were voluntary donations. Rather, it is being said that people of doubtful allegiance were levied with punitive taxes. By resorting to these tactics, the BUPC leadership gradually turned this once popular movement into a factional one. Hence, when the CPM started their onslaught in a planned manner, the BUPC resistance crumbled rapidly.
However, for how long can the CPM dominate Nandigram by brute force? The numbers of the dead and raped are still unfolding. Fact-finding teams are slowly disclosing names and details of the dead and wounded. Nandigram has become an epitome of resistance all over India and across the world — resistance against big corporate globalisation at the expense of poor farmers. And one thing is certain, Nandigram can't be turned into a Keshpur.
Earlier, the CPM used to enjoy a kind of moral authority; they were accepted as the main arbitrator on behalf of the poor in West Bengal. Now, that image has come under a cynical scanner. Though under siege, Nandigram will always remain a symbol of people's rebellion and resistance.