By Rajashri Dasgupta
It’s an old story, without even a new twist. The ‘voices’ heard at ground zero in Nandigram, West Bengal -- on industrialisation, displacement of farmers, compensation, and employment -- are all those of men. And yet, women have made an exceptional contribution in bringing the controversy over acquiring agricultural land for industrialisation to the national agenda.
After the police firing, when a team of women’s rights activists visited the area they found that the local women were fearful of losing their land and livelihoods. Said 36-year-old Chabi Mandal, mother of three, whose husband is a wage labourer: “How will the industry benefit me and my family? We will have to leave the area; where will we go with our children?” Kabita Das Adikari, owner of a small plot of land, who sustained a bullet injury, spoke from her hospital bed: “How will we survive if we are forced to give up our land? How much money will the government pay us? What will we eat? How do we clothe ourselves, and where will we get a roof over our heads?”
In the mounting unrest in the region, not only did women participate in large numbers they were also among the most articulate protesters of state government policy. On March 14, when a large contingent of police readied to enter Nandigram, the Bhoomi Ucched Pratirodh Committee (BUPC), formed to resist land acquisition in the area, immediately appealed to the women to form a human shield; Chabi, Kabita and many other women did so willingly. Anuradha Khara, owner of a small plot of land, said that she and the other women stood in vigil from daybreak, to stave off any attacks on their land.
The people of Nandigram believed that the policemen would not attack and fire on unarmed groups of women and children. It was not to be. On that fateful day, women borethe brunt of State brutality and their bodies became the sites of retaliation and humiliation in the oppositional turf war; they were killed, raped, shot at, beaten, and abused. Among the dead were two women; many received bullet wounds and were hospitalised for days. Four women alleged rape before the Tribunal, and there were cases of “sadistic assault on the private organs, leading to severe injuries”. Even children were not spared in the attack. Dr Debapriya Mallick and his team of doctors who visited the area and treated the injured found many cases of injury among children between the ages of 9 and 12, two of them brutal injuries.
Five months after the incident, peace has yet to return to the troubled villages. Again, it is the women who are now striving to bring a semblance of normalcy and peace to the region. They constitute the majority of the internally displaced and are the worst affected by the economic hardship. Since many farmers are still languishing in refugee camps or have fled the villages fearing retaliation and are unable to return to cultivate their land, the women are compelled to become the primary breadwinners to feed their families. In the midst of sporadic gunfire and the explosion of country-made bombs hurled by rival parties at each other, the women go about their everyday chores, taking care of the home, children, and the elderly.
With panchayat elections to be held early next year, hard bargaining and trade-offs on Nandigram have already begun between the polarised political camps in the state. But in the din, we no longer hear of women like Sabita, Anuradha and Chabi who so heroically protected their farmlands. Nor do we know their views on such contentious issues as SEZs, displacement and compensation -- issues that touch their everyday lives -- even though these are being heatedly debated in every university classroom and street corner of the state, and across the country.
The only noble exception made to women by civil rights and citizens’ groups is to include ageing writer-activist Mahasweta Devi and, occasionally, a token woman speaker on the podium. Across the board, political parties and organisations have failed to understand the potential role of women in ending violence and seeking justice in Nandigram.
(Rajashri Dasgupta is a Kolkata-based journalist and researcher)