Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Nandigram on the eve of the elctions


THE PLAY’S THE THING Rohini Chaki was witness to the elaborate drama being played out in Nandigram prior to the panchayat elections

Nandigram went to polls on Sunday, with one-and-a-half years of violence behind it. I was there last Friday, speaking to residents and trying to gauge the mood of these ‘sensitive areas’. But the word ‘resident’ itself is fuzzy in Nandigram. At the centre of Nandigram town, in the triangle formed by the hospital, the police station and the block division officer’s chambers, hundreds of displaced Bhoomi Uchchhed Pratirodh Committee families have taken refuge following alleged attacks by CPI(M) cadre. I say BUPC families because such is the level of polarization in Nandigram today that throughout my day-long visit, I did not come across a single person whose allegiance did not belong with one or the other political formation. It seems that a person’s identity is determined by his political affiliation: in Nandigram today, you are either a CPI(M) loyalist or a Trinamul Congress-led BUPC supporter.
It would be presumptuous to draw conclusions about the state of Nandigram from the 10-odd hours I spent there. Truth is so irredeemably diluted in the grand public performance that constitutes pre-poll campaigning there that I constantly had the feeling of being taken for a ride. The public show of normalcy, orchestrated by the police, the CRPF, and the CPI(M) was strained at the precincts of Nandigram Block I itself, where I passed sorry-looking men holding CPI(M) flags and mouthing slogans in barely concealed misery.
Nabakumar Samanta, the CPI(M) candidate from Sonachura was waiting for me near the Bhangabera bridge, the zone of many clashes from the beginning of the unrest in Nandigram. It was here that enraged villagers had killed Nabakumar’s brother, Sankar Samanta, on January 7, 2007. Again, it was here that the police firing of March 14, 2007 took place. The CPI(M) recapture of Nandigram, too, began here on November 11. Meanwhile, the Association for the Protection of Democratic Rights has identified Nabakumar as one of the party cadre involved in the March 14 firings alongside the police.
Samanta spoke fluently, in vivid detail, and with conviction, of the Trinamul MLA, Subhendu Adhikary, sending his armed goons to threaten peasants every evening for the past week. He rued that the media had trained their cynicism on the CPI(M), which had only built roads and provided electricity to an ungrateful Nandigram. The CRPF was a most indisciplined outfit, and the misbehaviour of the CBI (which found blood-stained clothes and women’s undergarments in Samanta’s house) was disgraceful. All allegations of rape against CPI(M) party cadre were false, brought by cheap women who would go to any extent to make an extra buck. Even the governor was involved in this propaganda against the Left. “They have learnt this drama from the CPI(M) itself,” he conceded. What about the shots believed to have been fired from his house in January, I asked, when I could insert a word into his unceasing monologue. The rage in his hitherto calm, expressionless eyes was visible for a flash. “Just an old rifle, a family heirloom. We used it to shoot birds. You can’t even kill the bird with it, you can only injure it enough to break its flight.” He continued in elaborate, unnerving detail about his childhood pastime of killing birds. He then took me to a meeting of women party workers, where they tried to look at ease and repeated after him that they were “happy”. None of them would look him in the eye when he addressed them. Throughout the interview, some eight or ten of his ‘boys’ kept watch on me. As I took notes, Samanta’s hand helpfully held down the page of the notebook on my lap, while he kept up an unabashed scrutiny of what I was writing. His three cellphones buzzed constantly, and he responded in dramatically high-flown terms, requesting his interlocutors not to disturb him, to “go there” or “manage it”. I wanted to tell him I was flattered that he was making the effort to play the soft-spoken, noble CPI(M) candidate for me, but I didn’t think it would go down well with him.
Outside the Nandigram hospital I was accosted by a group of young people, eager to talk and show me around. “Please come and see the brutality with which we have been attacked,” said a young man. He took me towards a bed where a man lay, evidently ill, but with no obvious bodily injuries. “Tell didi how badly you were attacked!” demanded my guide. The man stared listlessly back. “Don’t be afraid, tell her everything, she’s here to write about our problems.” The patient looked confused. “Weren’t you attacked by them?” persisted my man. “No. He just has a bad case of diarrhoea,” explained the patient’s relative, almost apologetically. I was taken to the safer, more identifiably BUPC patients, some clearly injured, others sitting on the floor, eating their lunch. The complaint was the same everywhere. CPI(M) cadre had come to their homes at night, beaten them up and threatened to kill them and their families if they didn’t join CPI(M) campaign rallies. They were forced to take shelter in the hospital. All they knew was that they would be killed if they returned home. Three men were shot at in Garchakraberia that morning, and CPI(M) workers were preventing them from being brought to the hospital, I was informed. But the CRPF had intervened and the boys were finally on their way. When I came back to the hospital in the late afternoon, they had still not reached. Nobody was talking about them any more. The CRPF commandant, P.K. Chhetri, told me nobody had been shot at in Garchakraberia. The block medical officer also said that no cases of gunfire injury had been registered in the past two months at least.
On election day, clashes were reported between police forces and CRPF personnel. The Nandigram police station OC, Debashish Chakraborty, was allegedly injured. A principal player in the grand game of shrouding the crisis of governance in an appearance of normalcy, Chakraborty could hardly contain his laughter at the ridiculousness of his own denials to me. Men in bikes carrying guns? “Where are they, we didn’t see them.” People getting beaten up? “Rubbish, everything is normal here.” Nabakumar Samanta makes his eyes light up in glee. “He is a wanted criminal. I’ll arrest him as soon as I see him.” When he is reminded that he had seen Nabakumar the day before and the latter had saluted him and walked away, he chuckles, “Oh? Was that Samanta? Why wasn’t I told? I would have arrested him!” He offers to take me around Nandigram at night in the police patrol van. Will I see the bike-bahini, I ask him? “How can we show you something that is not there?” The grin never leaves his face, he is evidently entertained. The only time he is serious is when he says that the report of a woman being stripped and beaten by CPM cadre in front of police personnel “should not have been written. The Telegraph should have been more careful”.
I went back to the hospital to meet Malati Jana, the woman in question. “They came to my house and beat me up and stripped me in front of everyone. I started running and they chased me upto the neighbouring village.” What about the police, I asked. “We informed them at 8 AM. They arrived at noon, and left me at Tekhali bridge. The OC warned me against filing a case. Two passers-by brought me to the hospital. I was given a sari to wear only in the hospital,” she said. What was she doing for the four hours before the police came? She couldn’t say, and we were constantly being interrupted by others. But the version she gave me was markedly different from what the papers had reported.
In Parulbari, Bhanupada Mali’s house had been turned into a flimsy fortress, barricaded with bamboo and stacks of hay. Mali’s wife used to be a CPI(M) worker, till the threat of land acquisition prompted them to shift allegiance. Mali is now a revered BUPC leader. He said that CPI(M) workers had threatened to take him away. The night before, they had taken two Trinamul boys to Khejuri and beaten them up, and had only released them when the SDO and SP intervened. Where were these boys now, and could I speak to them? “Oh, I don’t know where they are. I’m not supposed to track their whereabouts, am I?” he said angrily.
I left Nandigram armed with many ‘truths’. People on both sides were talking along the broader contours of the common narratives they had created for themselves. The CPI(M)’s was the narrative of past success. The BUPC, many of whose members were active CPI(M) workers before the threat of land acquisition and subsequent turf wars, uses the same tactics of political aggression as the CPI(M) has been doing.
Now both sides are engaged in a certain forms of performance (that sometimes touch upon farce) aimed at generating maximum publicity. The TMC-led BUPC plays up its victimhood, while its open resistance is opposed by the CPI(M)’s theatrics of peace and stability in an area where violence, sometimes camouflaged, has a pervasive presence. But how much of Nandigram’s violence is actual, and how much potential, is not a question that can be easily answered.


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