Sunday, March 9, 2008

Fear among the people of Nandigram

Still wedded to strife

What stands between Taimur Islam and Sakhera Khatun is not the two-foot-wide aisle that separates boys from girls in their classroom, but a violent political chasm that defines “ours” and “theirs” in Nandigram today. The young couple — both Higher Secondary examinees from Rajramchak Shikshaniketan, barely 4 km from the block headquarters of Nandigram in Bengal’s East Midnapore district — tied the knot at the registrar’s office in early January, for reasons other than love.

Taimur’s father Sheikh Muzaffar, a labourer in neighbouring Haldia, earns a meagre living — hardly enough to support his family back home. His mother Tahamina Bibi is suffering from tuberculosis and desperately needed a “girl” who could “help” her with household chores. And the only way she could get one was by getting her son married.

To Sakhera’s visually challenged father Khurshid Alam, who cooks and lives in a distant madarsa, and mother Sahida Bibi, who begs when she is not working in the neighbours’ fields, her daughter’s marriage spells relief. “At least I now have one less mouth to feed,” she says.

As first cousins, Taimur and Sakhera had grown up playing hopscotch and kabaddi like any “brother and sister would in our villages”, says 22-year-old Taimur, whose polio-stricken right hand hangs limp. But then, desperate times call for desperate measures. Tahamina Bibi says they had “tried to get a girl from outside” for their son. “But nobody will send their daughter to Nandigram even on a visit these days,” she says, alluding to reports of rapes and molestations in the strife-torn area.

So Muzaffar and his brother Khurshid put their heads together and came up with this “in-house” solution, waving aside a howl of protest from their son and daughter. “We are poor and have little choice in these troubled times,” says 19-year-old Sakhera, a note of resignation in her voice.

Villagers say that with the spread of education, the long-prevalent custom among Muslims of intra-family marriages had been disappearing. “It now seems to be making a comeback,” says Abdur Rahman of Dakshin Kendamari, where Taimur lives with his mother and three younger siblings.

Almost a year has passed since the police, with machete-and-gun-wielding suspected CPI(M) cadres in tow, shot dead 14 villagers and wounded scores on March 14, 2007 in an attempt to break through a blockade set up by villagers who feared losing land to a proposed Special Economy Zone (SEZ). Things worsened on November 11 when the “Red Army” recaptured the Nandigram villages they had lost to the Bhoomi Uchchhed Pratirodh Committee (BUPC), made up of opposition parties, including Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress. The police had stood by the whole time.

The nation was shocked — and people filled the streets of Calcutta in a silent, spontaneous protest — when Bengal chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee virtually justified the armed incursion by his partymen, describing the Nandigram villagers as “our people” and “their people”.

On Tuesday, Bhattacharjee visited Nandigram to distribute patta (land deeds) to the landless in the run-up to the crucial panchayat poll, slated for May. This time, he appealed to his party and the Opposition for peace.

Yet there has been no let-up in violence in Nandigram. If anything, it is rising as the CPI(M) loses one election after another in local school committees. Bloody clashes broke out on the eve of the chief minister’s visit recently, leading to an Opposition-sponsored strike in Nandigram last Monday.

Clearly, terror stalks the villages. “People are frightened, worried and apprehensive. The opposition has created an atmosphere of distrust,” says Nandigram Panchyat Samiti president Ashok Bera, who is also the CPI(M)’s zonal secretary. He says the party lost control of five school committees in almost as many months.

At Nandigram’s hospital, a number of young men, some with their faces swathed in blood-soaked bandages, lie in a row of beds. “CPI(M) thugs attacked our rally during Monday’s bandh and hit these youths with lathis topped with sharp nails,” says BUPC vice president Abdus Samad.

Love is not easy in such times of conflict. Marriage is even less so. Taimur and Sakhera may have been married on January 3, but they have been living separately in their own homes. Taimur says their parents had agreed to let them “pass” the Higher Secondary examination before they lived together “like husband and wife”.

Yet he says the possibility of passing the exams that start this week seem as bleak as bringing peace and sanity back to Nandigram. “There is absolutely no chance. For the last one year, there has been hardly any school,” he says. Sakhera nods in agreement.

Education is possibly the prime casualty of the conflict at Nandigram. “How can you teach when there is a bandh every other day and the bus, trekker and ferry services grind to a halt,” asks a teacher at Rajaramchak Higher Secondary School.

Gunshots and bomb explosions often punctuate the dark nights in the villages without electricity. “Forget study, you can’t even sleep peacefully at night,” Taimur says.

In their mud hut with a door so low that you have to crawl to get in, Sahida Bibi and her daughters, Sakhera and Shuktara, cower in fear when dusk falls. “These CPI(M) men stride by, threatening to kill all the men in our village like dogs and strip the girls and do bad things to them for supporting the BUPC,” whispers Sahida Bibi.

In school, Sakhera says she hears veiled threats of what the ruling party will do if they lose the panchayat poll. “It will be worse than what they did on March 14 last year.”

All this makes Taimur wonder whether they will ever get together or even whether their marriage will last. “We won’t pass the Higher Secondary exam and get any jobs. If we have no future, how can we survive as husband or wife,” Taimur muses.

Like several others, Sakhera’s family has already paid a heavy price for turning against the ruling party. “We don’t get cheap rice or wheat even though we are listed as a below poverty line family. My husband has also been denied old age pension even though he is over 65 years,” Sahida Bibi says. The local panchayat has also declined to help her marry her daughter. “We will have to give Taimur’s parents Rs 10,000 as dowry and a gold ring, as is our custom. But I don’t know where that money will come from,” the 60-year-old woman says.

On a recent afternoon, she stood expectantly outside the mud-and-tile Alpana video hall in the block headquarters, where a meeting of the Bhoomi Uchchhed Pratirodh Committee was under way. “I have to meet MLA babu. He is my last hope,” she says, referring to Trinamool MLA Subhendu Adhikari who is holding forth inside.

An hour later, Adhikari comes out and the frail woman tries to step up to him. But she is jostled aside by BUPC supporters escorting the MLA to his car. In a moment, Adhikari is gone — and with him, her “last hope” of raising money for her daughter’s marriage ceremony.