Saturday, May 10, 2008

Two days before the elections in Nandigram

Two sides of the coin in war zoneIMRAN AHMED SIDDIQUI

Nandigram, May 9: A small bridge divides Nandigram block I and Khejuri, but there is a world of difference between the two places.
One is a CPM bastion, secure in its strength.
The other is the “territory” armed CPM cadres had recap-tured in November, and are now determined to retain.
In the run-up to the rural polls, as hundreds of villagers in Nandigram block I flee their homes at night terrified of marauding CPM men, the residents of Khejuri, across the Tekhali bridge, sleep in peace.
While villages in Nandigram are scarred by violence, an easy calm prevails in Khejuri. For, the elections in Khejuri are a “non-issue”, with no Opposition in sight. The CPM has won 30 of the 99 panchayat seats in Khejuri block I uncontested. In block II, it has won 12 of the 96 seats without a fight.
Such is the party’s strength in Khejuri that no Opposition candidate dared to venture into the area to campaign.
“We are not concerned about Khejuri as we have already won the elections there and celebrations began a few days ago. But we have to win Nandigram I if we have to make a point. We are ready to lose anywhere but not here,” says a man sitting in the CPM office in Sherkhan Chowk.
Twelve CPM cadres were arrested from a Sherkhan Chowk brick kiln and a huge cache of arms and ammunition recovered after the March 14 police firing last year.
“We believe in peace, see how peaceful Khejuri is,” he says. “Fear of losing in Nandigram I has made our opponents insecure and they are creating problems.”
He, of course, refuses to discuss how armed CPM cadres on their motorcycles have been terrorising Opposition supporters across the bridge.
It is at this office that the cadres assemble before zooming across the bridge to begin their nights of terror.
In Khejuri, no one dares to utter a word against the CPM.
The few Bhoomi Uchchhed Pratirodh Committee sympathisers in Khejuri do not dare raise their voice.
“We have no option but to vote for the CPM. This is how elections are won here,” says a 60-year-old resident of Sherkhan Chowk.
An atmosphere of suspicion pervades the area. “They (the CPM) have informers everywhere and will quiz us the moment you (reporters) leave to find out what we had been talking about,” he says.
Most villagers speak in hushed tones while others keep mum. CPM flags adorn every house and the writing on the wall is loud and clear.
Asked about the violence in Nandigram I, a resident of Tetultala in Khejuri says: “We know so many things that we do not want to know more.”
In Nandigram, there are spies because the divide between the two sides — the Pratirodh Committee and the CPM — is clear. Almost everyone knows who supports whom.
In Khejuri, most people don’t ask questions but they know exactly what is happening when they hear gunshots across the bridge at night.
Villagers who have been separated from their relatives on the other side do not visit them but talk on cellphones instead. “I have not been to Nandigram since November 2006. My sister stays in Sonachura, we speak over the phone,” says Anil Das of Sherkhan Chowk.
Election police
The government told the poll panel today that armed forces could be deployed only in 80 per cent of the booths for the May 11 polls.
However, there will be armed guards at all booths in Nandigram, which have been declared sensitive.
CPM state secretary Biman Bose wrote to the panel today, saying if city intellectuals went to Nandigram as indep- endent election observers, they should not be allowed to take police escorts.

Buddha shrugs off the violence

Calcutta, May 8: Chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee today described the violence in Nandigram in the run-up to the panchayat elections as “small skirmishes”.
CPM cadres have been accused of unleashing a reign of terror over the past two weeks, rendering hundreds of people homeless.
The chief minister described Nandigram and Singur as “exceptions” while defending his drive for industry. He, however, stressed that the outcome of the panchayat polls should not be seen as a referendum on the drive.
“The two should not be mixed up,” he said. “But if you think it is a referendum, let us hope for the best. I believe the people of the state will vote for industrialisation since there is no alternative.’’
The chief minister claimed that things had changed “radically” in Nandigram since last year, when the campaign against land acquisition had taken root.
“There is bitterness because of the problem Nandigram faced last year. But things have radically changed.”
He said only some “small skirmishes” had taken place. “Has there been any death?”
The chief minister added that “rumours” were prompting people to flee their homes.
Bhattacharjee, addressing a meet-the-press programme at the Calcutta Press Club, said the Opposition, too, was interested in ensuring peace.
“It is good that the ruling party and the Opposition are trying to settle disputes. All the homeless people have returned home and more central and state forces are being deployed there. I promise you a totally free and fair poll in Nandigram,” he added.
The chief minister rubbished complaints from Opposition parties and even Left Front partners that the CPM was running a “terror campaign” in Nandigram and elsewhere, preventing candidates from filing nominations.
“The election commission found the complaints baseless after checking the facts with the government,” he said.
Poll agent killed
The election agent of a CPM candidate in West Midnapore was killed this morning when a group of eight masked men opened fire on a procession.
The CPM alleged that the attack on Manmatha Mahato, 35, in Binpur was the handiwork of Jharkhand Party (Naren) activists.
CPM supporters ransacked four houses belonging to Jharkhand Party supporters and set them ablaze.

Victims turn ire on Mamata- ‘When you can’t protect supporters, leave party’ ANSHUMAN PHADIKAR
Nandigram, May 9: Mamata Banerjee’s supporters accused her of being stuck to Calcutta at a time of their suffering when she visited the Nandigram block hospital today to see villagers allegedly attacked by CPM supporters over the past week.
Abha Rani Bera, a Trinamul Congress candidate from Kendamari, was with her brother Madhusudan, who lay on the hospital floor with his head swathed in bandages, when she walked in.
“We are being beaten up by CPM cadres and hundreds of people are not being able to return home. But you leaders are sitting tight in Calcutta doing nothing,” the 40-year-old woman shouted at her party chief.
Madhusudan, 27, was hospitalised with a fractured skull after alleged CPM cadres hit him for refusing to join their procession.
“We neither have shelter nor food. We don’t know when we are going to return home. When you can’t protect your supporters, leave the party,” fumed Abha.
Mamata moved on towards other patients, turning her back towards Abha.
Two Trinamul supporters from Southkhali also gave her a piece of their mind.
Debabrata Mondal, 19, and Banabehari Mondal, 30, were lying on concrete platforms meant for patients’ relatives with bruises all over their bodies.
They, too, were beaten up when they refused to walk in a CPM procession.
Banabehari did not shout at Mamata, but made it clear that it was time she did something instead of just showing sympathy. “Please do something for us. If you can’t, we will take care of ourselves.”
Debabrata said: “You have failed to protect us.”
Mamata did not stop to speak to anyone else. As she made a round of the female ward, she touched the heads and shoulders of some. Among them was the woman who was stripped and beaten up on Monday.
Outside the hospital, supporters demanded that they be given a free hand to take on the CPM.
Mamata ignored them and walked with leaders like Mukul Roy and Sisir Adhikary to the Scorpio that drove her to Bhoomi Uchchhed Pratirodh Committee convener and Trinamul zilla parishad candidate Abu Sufiyan’s house for a meeting.
Asked about her supporters’ complaints, she said: “They did not say anything about me. They were expressing their grievances about police.”

Promise: peaceful Nandi poll
Excerpts from chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s news conference on Friday
Q: Clashes have broken out in Nandigram again. Is this a battle for political space?
A: The present confrontation is not similar to what happened there last November.
Nothing untoward occurred in Nandigram over the past month or so, and peace was gradually returning. Small skirmishes have been reported but there hasn’t been any major clash. Has there been any death?
Rumours are spreading fast and prompting people to flee homes or confront each other.
Q: Do you think the panchayat polls can be held peacefully in Nandigram?
A: There is bitterness (among people) because of the problems Nandigram faced last year, but things have changed radically in the past few months. I assure you peaceful polls.
Q: Is it true that Opposition supporters are being threatened?
A: The state election commission, which has observers all over, never said people could not file nominations because of fear or intimidation. If the Opposition doesn’t have candidates, what can we do? I shouldn’t predict, but we hope to win all the zilla parishads.
Q: The Maoist menace is a big worry. Several people, including CPM supporters, are being killed. What action do you plan to take?
A: It would have been good had they joined mainstream politics, but they took to violence, which can’t be tolerated.
Their presence, however, is limited to some 15 villages in Purulia, seven-eight in West Midnapore and about five in Bankura.
Q: You must have seen governor Gopalkrishna Gandhi switching off Raj Bhavan lights.
A: The power situation here is far better than other states. Investors would not stop coming because of stray power cuts resulting from technical failures.
Q: Your ministers have criticised the governor. Don’t you have anything to say?
A: No.
Q: Do you want the governor’s post to be abolished?
A: I won’t discuss this here. There is a panel to look into Centre-state relations. Our party will submit its views once it starts functioning.
Q: The Opposition is still not agreeing to talk to you on industrialisation. Why?
A: If the leader of the principal Opposition party doesn’t want to see my face, it would hardly bother me but it does matter when it affects the state’s interests. How can the state progress without co-operation? I always wanted a consensus on industrialisation but it didn’t happen.
Q: Do you advocate takeover of farmland for industry?
A: Our objective is to take mono-crop or less fertile tracts. But if we are forced to take fertile land, can we say there is no need for industry?
Q: What’s the solution?
A: Our aim is to ensure proper compensation and rehabilitation for landlosers and that the food output doesn’t fall.
Industrialisation has to continue. There hasn’t been any problem with the seven steel plants coming up in Bengal or the shipbuilding yard in Mahisadal where people expressed their approval in writing.
In Singur, a section of the people opposed (the car plant), while we hurried up things in Nandigram. Singur and Nandigram are exceptions.
Q: Your Left Front partners are making all sorts of noises.... How do you take it?
A: Our vision about industrialisation and the state’s progress is clear. Others may have slightly different views but discussions can always be held. Those who are not realising (the need for industry) now would understand later.
Q: Is the same applicable to intellectuals who are taking to the streets on Nandigram?
A: I should tell you that an overwhelming majority of cultural personalities is with our government.
Q: But you are being criticised by intellectuals.
A: Tumi adham bole aami uttam hobo na keno (you may be inferior but how can that prevent me from being superior).