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Nandigram revisited: The scars of battle

By Tushar Dhara

Nandigram, where villagers have been strongly resisting the acquisition of their lands, represents the cleft between the hopes of an urban middle class high on the promise of growth and development and the anxieties of the rural masses who say all they know is farming and what they want most is land

 

 

Nandigram burst into the national spotlight on March 14, 2007, when the police, allegedly assisted by CPI (M) party cadres, shot dead 14 people. The police were sent in by the West Bengal government to re-establish their authority two months after Nandigram became a 'liberated zone'; an area where the government's writ, as claimed by the party, had ceased to exist because the police could not enter and from where CPI (M) supporters had been driven out.

These issues were highlighted in the media. What was lacking (at least in the nationally circulated English language mass media outside West Bengal) was the broad socio-historical and political context in which Nandigram could be understood beyond the violence and the deaths. What were the larger issues pertaining to industrialisation and land acquisition in the context of Nandigram? It was against this backdrop that I evinced an interest in going to Nandigram to find out for myself what the situation on the ground actually was, amid the allegations and counter-allegations.

On December 28, 2006, the Haldia Development Authority issued a notification for land acquisition for a chemical hub in Nandigram blocks 1 and 2. On January 3, 2007, a crowd gathered outside the panchayat office in Garchakraberia village and shouted slogans against land acquisition. What happened next remains fuzzy. The police tried to quell the crowd and resorted to a lathi charge. The angry crowd turned on the police, who fled the scene in two jeeps, one of which collided with an electricity pole that short-circuited and burned the jeep down. That same day, villagers in Garchakraberia, Sonachura and some surrounding villages obstructed the roads at certain points and blew up some bridges. This was to prevent the police from entering the area. Dipankar Nag, a journalist with the Bengali news channel Tara News, recalls: "Roads were cut up to avoid another Singur-like situation. What happened in Singur was that the police entered the area and brutally cowed down the resistance movement." Many villagers reportedly told him: "We won't let our movement become another Singur."

Four days later there was an incident that further inflamed the situation. On January 7, a CPI (M) supporter named Shankar Samanta was burnt alive by an angry mob in Sonachura. The mob was agitated because some CPI (M) harmad (hired mercenaries) had used Samanta's house, located on the edge of the Talpati canal between Khejuri (an adjacent block which was a CPI (M) stronghold) and Sonachura, to fire into Sonachura. Three residents of Sonachura were killed in the firing, which, incidentally, marks the first day of violent hostilities between the CPI (M) cadre and Nandigram villagers, a situation that continued every day till November 12.

On January 5, a meeting was held at a Nandigram school. It was here that the Bhoomi Uchched Pratirodh Committee (land acquisition resistance committee), BUPC for short, was constituted to lead an organised resistance movement against the government's plans for land acquisition. Many CPI (M) workers who felt short-changed by the party attended the meeting. Sheikh Sufian, a prominent local resident, was made BUPC president while Abu Taher and Nanda Patra became joint secretaries. An executive-level body as well as a 'treasurer' were also appointed.

In March the government decided to try and end the impasse. On March 14, nearly 3,000 personnel of the West Bengal police entered Nandigram block 1 to re-establish the government's authority. The police came into Nandigram block 1 from the two entry points of Tekhali bridge and Bhangabera bridge from Khejuri. From Tekhali they proceeded towards the Adhikaripara-Gokulnagar hamlets, which were strongholds of the Bhoomi Uchched Pratirodh Committee resistance movement.

When I visited Adhikaripara nine months later in December there was an outward calm in the area. But you could sense the tension below the surface in this beautiful part of East Midnapore district. Though I was with a team of six journalists working for three different Bengali news organisations, suspicious stares greeted us as we entered the hamlets. "Do not wander about on your own or you run the risk of being labelled a Maoist," warned one of the journalists.

Villagers in Adhikaripara hit upon a novel strategy to stall the entry of the police on March 14. Hindus took an idol out of a local temple while Muslims held a Koran recitation in public. This was done to block the entry points. The police gathered on an embankment and fired across the field into the assembled people. Meanwhile in Sonachura a similar tragedy was playing out. Police had gathered on the Bhangabera bridge and fired into the assembled crowd. At both places villagers reported seeing harmad dressed in police uniforms, but clad in slippers, firing along with the police.

The events surrounding the March 14 firing are hotly contested: the number of rounds fired by the police, number of people injured, and the number dead. What is beyond dispute is that at least 14 people died. Says Sheikh Khushnabi, an executive secretary of the BUPC: "The police officially claim to have fired 20 rounds at Bhangabera and 17 in Adhikaripara. But there were 14 deaths and, more significantly, 167 people were injured. Even the CBI report states that 167 rounds were fired." Twelve people died in the Bhangabera firing and two perished at Adhikaripara.

The day we were in Adhikaripara we were shown houses of BUPC members allegedly burnt by CPI (M) cadre during the November 'recapture', and the idol that was taken out for the public puja in March. A youth who had been tilling his field found a spent bullet and showed it to us. This was my first day in Nandigram and the scars of battle were being unearthed in front of my eyes. It was an eye-opener because no matter how much I read about it or watched images on TV, I had always been at a safe distance from the scene and thus emotionally detached.

That day we also visited Satengabari, a village which had been badly affected in the November 'recapture'. Satengabari is located close to the Talpati canal, which marks the border between Nandigram and Khejuri blocks. As you make your way towards Satengabari, the thing that strikes you is the profusion of triumphant red flags in the post-harvest landscape. The same thing struck me when I saw Nandigram bazaar for the first time earlier that morning. A half-kilometre-long main road forms the heart of Nandigram bazaar and flags of every political party hang from the buildings.

When the November 'recapture' was launched, Satengabari lay in a direct route of attack as CPI (M) cadres made their way into Nandigram. Villagers claim that 60-70 houses were burnt in this vicinity as the cadres rampaged through. Every house was looted and anything that was not nailed down was taken away. I was shown houses that were bare from the inside save the walls and ceiling. In some cases even the ceiling had caved in. Villagers in Satengabari fled to refugee camps fearing for their lives. Syed Habibul, a Satengabari resident said: "The firing became so intense that all of us had to vacate our houses and leave. We returned only on November 20 when the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) established peace here."

Signs of the conflict are everywhere. Mir Bullu Ali, a 10-year-old boy was hit by a bullet on October 28. October 28? "Wasn't that before the firing started," I asked. The gathered crowd replied that firing had taken place in Nandigram every single day from January 7 through November 12.

See, this is the thing about Nandigram: I thought the only two flashpoints were in March and November. The events in between remained fuzzy, if not totally unknown. Bengali media outlets have done a good job of chronicling Nandigram, but there was a paucity of information in the media outside West Bengal.

One of the justifications offered by the CPI (M) for the November 'recapture' was that thousands of their supporters were driven out of their homes by the BUPC, into refugee camps where they had been living for 11 months. They had to return, and since every other method at restoring peace had failed they had to fight their way back in. I asked some BUPC members about this.

 

 

There is no doubt that CPI (M) supporters had been driven out of Nandigram. But the reasons and numbers given by the BUPC are different. According to Sheikh Khushnabi, only around 200-300 people were rendered homeless during the 11 months, and not 2,000-3,000 as claimed by the CPI (M). "Most fled of their own volition because they were scared. We never blocked the return of anyone. But the CPI(M) fed them misinformation that they would be raped and murdered if they came back to Nandigram, thus creating conditions for them to claim that their sympathisers were being victimised," says Khushnabi.

It is impossible to verify the truth amid the claims and counter-claims, but the truth probably lies in between. Conditions in Nandigram, particularly after the January 7 incident, are likely to have been hostile for CPI (M) sympathisers.

There is another detail here. Many Nandigram villagers I met claim that they identified 35 local CPI (M) supporters who helped the police on March 14. Says Abu Taher: "We maintained throughout that except for these 35, everyone else could return. These 35 had helped the police fire into the crowd on March 14 and also raped women that day, so they were not welcome."

The next day, December 16, we made our way to a village called Daudpur where polls were being held to elect members to the governing body of a madrassa, a Muslim religious school. It was the first local poll here after the violence and there was tension in the air. The CPI (M) was edgy and trying to protect its turf. This area had once been an impregnable red bastion. Now the tables had turned.

The polling venue was inside the madrassa, and security was tight. Rumours were flying thick and fast that the Trinamool Congress, an opposition political party that had a marginal presence hitherto but which had opposed the CPI (M) on Nandigram, was going to make a huge impact.

There was a line of people by the gate waiting to go in and cast their vote. My friends were filming the scene and taking notes and bytes for the evening broadcast. Suddenly there were shouts and a man came up to me and asked if I knew the short guy with the camera. Sure, I replied. "Well, your friends have been attacked and their lives are at risk," he said. Several things happened next: There was a commotion and a crowd gathered on the other side of the ground. Then I saw my friends being escorted out of the crowd by the police.

Some agitated CPI (M) workers had accused the journalists of being biased against them in their coverage and started screaming abuse. A mob surrounded them and pushed the cameraman around, striking three or four blows to his head. Someone reached into his pocket in the melee and stole his cellphone. The mob even tried to snatch the camera but, with quick presence of mind, he handed it to a colleague who shoved it in his bag and bolted. It took police intervention to calm things down.

We were led out of there an hour later under heavy CRPF escort. We proceeded to the primary health centre in Nandigram bazaar to get our cameraman checked up. He was shaken but otherwise fine. Then we went to the police station to file a complaint against a local CPI (M) leader who had instigated the mob.

Journalists in Nandigram have been targeted for their work. A local PTI correspondent, Gourango Hazra, was abducted from Nandigram -- allegedly by CPI (M) cadre -- on March 14. "They took me to a secluded spot and manhandled me. I broke my right arm in the process. But they had to release me the same day because of the uproar," he told me.

I was keen to meet someone high up in the decision-making ranks of the BUPC, to get an insider's account of the resistance movement. When I was introduced to Sheikh Sufian, president of the BUPC, I asked him about the origins of the BUPC and its role in the resistance movement. This is what he said:

The basic issue around which the resistance formed was the question of land acquisition and the resulting displacement. Nandigram block 1, which was the main affected area, has a total land area of 84,164 acres out of which 18,123 acres were to be acquired, affecting 38 villages. There was confusion about how these people would be compensated, whether they would find employment in the proposed chemical hub, and where they would go. And what about the remaining land? What would happen to people who lived there? Would they have to give up their land too? There were no clear answers. In any case, they said, we are farmers and have tilled this land for generations. We do not know how to operate machines or work on computers. We will not give up our land.

The charge of government skulduggery is further corroborated by a source from a political party allied to the CPI (M)-led left-front government. He said: "In a meeting called by the CPI(M) to create consensus among its allies I asked Buddhadeb Bhattacharya (chief minister of the state of West Bengal) some pointed questions about the particulars of land acquisition, where the displaced would be absorbed, and, if not, whether the government had an alternative plan to rehabilitate them. I did not get satisfactory answers to any of these questions. Instead, the chief minister said the government would provide details at the appropriate time. What was the need to be secretive about rehabilitation?"

CPI (M) party bosses are quick to refute the charges. Ashok Bera, the CPI (M) zonal committee member for Nandigram, told reporters: "After the March firing we announced that there would be no land acquisition. The matter should have ended there. Instead, opposition parties sniffed an opportunity to stir up trouble and continued to use the villagers to prolong a militant movement."

Along with Sheikh Sufian was his uncle, Sheikh Haibul. Haibul is a lean, angular former police officer. Sharp and hawk-eyed, he also served as Sheikh Sufian's 'bodyguard'. I asked him if the allegations that Maoists (an ultra-leftwing grouping) had infiltrated the area were true. "Sure there are Maoists. If the government tries to take away our temples, mosques and homes and I resist and am consequently dubbed a Maoist then so be it. I am a Maoist. He's a Maoist (pointing to Sheikh Sufian). Everyone's a Maoist. Call us what you will. Labels don't matter."

Dipankar Nag, a veteran Nandigram journalist, admitted that there were a few Maoists who had infiltrated the area, but it was irresponsible to claim that large numbers were present in Nandigram. So how were the villagers able to organise themselves with such military precision? After all, they had cut off roads, blown up bridges and repulsed attacks by the CPI (M) cadre for nearly a year...

The thing about Nandigram is that a lot of people here join the army, police and paramilitary forces. So military discipline is not new to them. Also, there was an incident in pre-Independence times where a person from Nandigram had burnt alive a British officer. There is enormous pride among the people here about their 'martial' skills. That pride was evident when Sheikh Haibul queried rhetorically: "A British inspector was burnt alive by a Nandigram man before Independence, so how did Bhattacharya think he could take our land from us?"

I was also curious to know how the BUPC had acquired arms. To my surprise, every BUPC member I met denied this. "We did not have any firearms. That is a rumour spread by the CPI (M) to discredit us," says Abu Taher. So how did they fight off well-armed CPI (M) cadre? "We had superior numbers on our side. Whenever they launched an attack from Khejuri we would mobilise people. Mosques would use loudspeakers and Hindu households used conch shells to sound a warning. People would quickly gather in numbers and frighten the intruders," Sheikh Sufian explained.

This sounded a little specious. Bholanath Vijuli, a journalist with an intimate understanding of Nandigram, had told me that "when both parties were armed with country-made firearms the resistance was more than a match for the CPI (M) cadre. But when the latter came armed with AK-47s and INSAS rifles (during the November 'recapture'), the resistance was outgunned".

On December 18 the CRPF received a tip-off about explosives that were hidden in a house in Takapura village. A party of CRPF troops led by an assistant commandant reached the village at 3 pm. Following them was a jeepful of journalists, including me.

Takapura is a small village built around a rectangular bazaar. There is a school at one end of the bazaar and shops line the other three sides. The CRPF soldiers milled around the bazaar waiting for orders, while the villagers looked on with nervous excitement. The air was tense. At first I thought it was a wild goose chase, but, as time went by, I sensed that it would be a most unusual night.

Apparently one of the houses around the bazaar had a cache of bombs. The house in question was located just beside the school. The CRPF soldiers cordoned off the bazaar and began searching the premises.

Suddenly there was a flurry of activity. CRPF Assistant Commandant A K Upadhyay, who had been in the house for over three hours, came out with a man, flanked by soldiers with guns. Our cameraman was filming the scene and the reporter was asking him questions. Abhay Jana, the suspect, was living in the house and taught at the local school. The CRPF men found a bag under his bed with nine crude country-made bombs. He claimed he did not know the bag contained bombs until the CRPF men fished it out. Asked how it got there, Abhay said: "I suspect that some people who visited my house put it there." When asked about his political affiliations he said he had none, but added, "The person who did this is a local-level CPI (M) worker".

Abhay Jana was handed over to the civil police at Nandigram police station. The assembled media hacks got their exclusive.

Nandigram is at the heart of a wider debate on industrialisation. It is about the social costs of pursuing an 'industrialisation at all costs' policy. In an aspirational society that is today's India, Nandigram represents the cleft between the hopes of an urban middle class and the anxieties of the rural masses.

(Tushar Dhara is a Mumbai-based journalist.)

InfoChange News & Features, April 2008