Singur and Nandigram have forced renewed debate on some of the most burning questions of our time. Shoma Chaudhury travels to the hotspots to trace the roots of unrest and its lessons. Photographs by Shibani Chaudhury
The frontline: A women’s rally in Nandigram protesting against false FIRs and arrests
Singur first slipped into the news in May last year. Soon after the Left Front government was sworn into power for the seventh time in a row in West Bengal, the CM, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya announced that Tata Motors was going to set up a car factory in Singur. Bengal has been suffering a stagnant economy for decades. This was to be the proud flagship of a new, aggressively industrialising Bengal. In popular middle-class imagination, the Tata name usually equals progress and growth. But trouble began almost immediately. Rallies, demonstrations, petitions, and then as the government persisted in acquiring the land, escalating tension and violence. September 25 and December 2, 2006, are folkloric dates in Singur. Scores of villagers are still smarting at the memory of the police action, lathi charge, tear gas, rubber bullets and arrests. For us, in our safe enclaves, these words have lost meaning with overuse. Unless one faces the might of the State oneself, one cannot approximate the pain of wood thudding on skin, the searing burn of tear gas. One cannot approximate the fear and anger ordinary people feel on the ground. On September 25, about 7,000 workers led by the Krishi Jami Rakha Committee — a conglomeration of parties, activists, and workers’ groups — had gathered at the Block Development Office to protest anomalies in the disbursal of compensation. In the police action that followed, Rajkumar Bhool, the 24-year-old son of a landless couple, was so badly beaten he collapsed by a pond and died. Several people were injured and 72 activists, including 27 women and a two- and-a-half-year-old girl, were arrested, several under Section 307 of the IPC, that is “attempt to murder.” This incident increased the groundswell of anger. In response, the government clamped Section 144 of the Cr PC on the Singur region. On December 2, flanked by police, as the government began to fence off the acquired land, thousands of people gathered to stop the fencing. They were lathi-charged by the police and the Rapid Action Force (RAF). Women complained of verbal and physical abuse. Sixty villagers were arrested, 18 among them women. All were charged with IPC, Section 307. On December 18, 18-year-old Tapasi Malik’s body was found smouldering in the fields. Since then, Singur has continued to boil, with the government asserting that the Tata Motors small car factory would come up there at any cost.
One might wonder why one should be concerned with local trouble over a small car factory project in a faraway place. In fact, most people in urban India reading about Singur in small news snippets say, “But the farmers are being paid adequate compensation, why don’t they move?” Or as an Indian friend from America put it, even more dismissively, “Oh Singur — that Mamata Banerjee drama!” He could’ve been speaking for almost all of India’s middle-class.
Sitting in Delhi and Bombay and Bangalore, it is difficult to imagine what’s going on in these places. But Singur, and much more powerfully, Nandigram, the other seething faultline in Bengal, are not just about “adequate compensation” and competitive party politics. They are white hot samples — symptoms — of what’s happening in every corner of India. Raigad, Kalinganagar, Dadri, Kalahandi, Kakinada, Aurangabad, Bijapur, Chandrapore, Haripur, Bachera, Chowringa, Tirupati, Mand. The underlying stories everywhere are the same. Land takeover in the name of development or big industry. Summary eviction and displacement. Inadequate compensation. Lack of informed consent. Police action and state oppression. The breakdown of democratic process. And the arrogant sense that unless you have a high, urban standard of living and speak English, you are not a legitimate Indian.
By raising the temperature then, Singur and Nandigram have brought to head several of the most crucial questions of our time. Which path to development is India taking? One custom-built to fit its complex socio-political realities, or one imposed top down? How democratic is that path? Who will bear the “pain of growth”? What will shining India do with simmering India? And most importantly, if our governments do not course correct, how will simmering India express itself? It is undoubtedly true that sections of India have seen massive growth in the last five years. We, in the urban centres, who have benefited from that economic buoyancy, we who are coasting on massive salaries and a giddy new buying power, might find it difficult to see this as lopsided growth, but the most hawkish reformer would find it hard to deny that India’s galloping gdp is being forged on an under-layer of deep resentment.
And lava always finds its volcanic mouth. Visit the first house in Singur and the stories start to flow. Srikant Koley, 31, a swarthy, muscular man, used to own five bighas of land in Gopalnagar. This has been acquired for the Tata project and now falls within the fenced-off area. From being a self-sufficient farmer, he has become a daily-wage labourer. Yet he refuses compensation. Leaning scornfully on his cycle, pointing to the rich vegetable patch around him, he says, “We hear the Tatas have spent Rs 1,50,000 crore to acquire Corus, and here it is using the government to forcibly take our land away on subsidised rates? Are they such big beggars? Our land is our wealth, it is our life’s security. I’ll gift them my land then, but I will not take money for it.” “If I sell out, what will happen to the people who work on my field,” asks 50-year-old, Pratap Ghosh, owner of three and a half acres of land, now fenced off. A giant granary towers behind him. “Who will watch out for the discontent and unrest this is going to create? We are a community, we help each other. We can’t all be absorbed by the Tata factory. If I sell, I’ll just be creating dacoits in my own house. Money is temporary, how long can it last? Land is perennial.”