23 December 2010

Nandigram : The People Who Struggled And Won

By Swapan Ganguly, Paschim Banga Khet Majoor Samity

The Nandigram struggle, a movement that concerned 29 mouzas in the district of Purba Midnapore in West Bengal, started from 3 Gram Panchayats, but has impacted people’s movements all over the world. The movement by the people of Nandigram began when they heard that their land was to be acquired for industrial development. On 31st July 2006, the West Bengal government signed a MoU with the Salim Group of Indonesia for this purpose. The worried people immediately formed two independent people's organisations named "Gana Unnayan O Jana Adhikar Sangram Samity" (Association for Mass Development and People's Rights) and "Krishi Jami O Janaswartha Raksha Committee" (Committee for protection of agricultural lands and public interest) to protect their life and livelihoods.

On 29th December 2006, a public meeting was called up by Mr. Lakshman Seth, the Chairman of Haldia Development Authority (HDA) and CPI(M) MP, at Nandigram Bus stand to convince the local people in favour of land acquisition. But the villagers strongly raised their voice of protest against this autocratic decision of the government. Lakshman Seth rejected their protests and said very unilaterally that the project would happen. On 2nd January 2007, a notice was officially issued by HDA that initially about 14,500 acres of land of 27 moujas of Nandigram-1 block and 2 moujas of Khejuri-2 block would be acquired. It was also announced that the land of Nandigram block would be acquired shortly since the Salim Group would build a mega Chemical Hub (10,000 acres) and another industrialist group of Pawan Ruia would set up a Shipbuilding and repairing unit (2500 acres) there. The rest of the land (2000 acres) would be used for disposal of alluvium dredged from the river bed of Haldia Port.

This immediately caused a lot of consternation amongst the people. A large number of villagers of Garchakraberia gathered at their Gram Panchayat office on 3rd January to express their refusal to part with their land. But their peaceful protest action met with atrocious manhandling and straightforward violation of human rights by the Left Front Government police. 5 innocent villagers were severely injured due to police firing.

This was the start of the Nandigram movement. The people of Nandigram had seen that the Government could use police force to acquire land as they had done in Singur for the Tata Motors project on 2nd December 2006. They also knew that once their land was fenced off, as in Singur , the struggle would be long and hard. They found that the West Bengal Government had not been responding in Singur to the accepted programmes of peaceful mass action. So, they decided to take the more drastic step of cutting off their area from the rest of West Bengal by digging trenches on all the roads that led into the area that was to be acquired. At the same time, all the committees and forces in the area combined to form the Bhumi Ucched Pratirodh Committee (BUPC), an all party formation, which henceforth led the struggle.

This was not a new tactic for Nandigram. Similar digging up of roads and cutting off of the area had been done here during the British period when Nandigram was one of the first areas to declare itself independent of the British. It had been a liberated zone for over a year at that time .

Like the British, the CPI(M) and the police reacted with extreme ferociousness and with a dangerous “jugal bandi” , a well planned orchestra, where the police and the party acted in tandem to suppress the people’s movement. This was to be the hallmark of the Nandigram movement for the next one and a half years. Events of greater and greater brutality followed. On 7th January, when the first deaths took place, police camps at Bhangabera withdrew to make way for a number of armed CPI(M) cadres . These cadres came to be known as the harmad vahini later (a local expression used to denote Portugese pirates who were known for the barbarity). The harmad vahini occupied the house of a well known CPI(M) leader and began firing indiscriminately at villagers who were patrolling the places where the roads had been dug up near Bhangabera Bridge. Four people died including a 13-year-old boy died. 3 people were seriously injured and had to be admitted to hospital. Mob fury erupted and the house of the CPI(M) leader where the harmad vahini were firing from was burnt down. Shankar Samanta, a prominent CPI(M) leader and the owner of that house, was killed.

Tensions continued for the next few months. There were attempts to do an economic blockade on Nandigram- the people were not allowed to take their produce out to sell in nearby markets; people and buses were stopped and searched when they went into Nandigram or travelled outwards; migrant workers from Nandigram who were working in Haldia or in Metiabruz in Kolkata were threatened with job losses. The CPI(M) went into an overdrive to quell the protest. The police stood by and watched
On 14th March, 2007, the police-party jugal bandi reached a crescendo. After meticulous planning, in which party functionaries planned an operation with the police, an armed invasion of Nandigram was ordered. The BUPC, on hearing about this responded with a peaceful prayer. Thousands of people amassed at the “border” i.e. at the places where roads had been dug up, and where the police was likely to enter. They swore they would give their lives but not their land. Children and women sat in prayer or read namaz, with the men folk in the rear, hoping that the police would not be so violent with women and children. What followed was mayhem. Indiscriminate firing, throwing of teargas shells, a violent lathi charge- and then later, forcibly entering homes, raping and molestation of women.

A few cases were reported and documented, many remained undisclosed. In the High Court, there were reports of 3 rapes, 162 injured, 26 missing and 14 dead.  A house-to-house survey of 2754 of the worst affected households brought forth further reports – 59 bullet injuries, 37 rubber bullet injuries, 120 rifle butt injuries, 26 tear gas shell injuries and 2 bomb injuries. 11 women reported rape, 274 reported physical torture, 46 reported violation of modesty, 17 reported sexual torture. The figures were numbing, the experiences we heard when we visited the area were heartrending. The villages were silent; many had fled. The hospital in Nandigram town was in turmoil, with crying women seeking lost families, with enraged people looking for the harmad, with other people looking shell shocked. Most shocking was the evidence that came out gradually that the attackers had consisted of both the police and the harmad dressed as police – uniform clad people with slippers on their feet could not possibly be police! Everyone said that the slipper-clad ones- the harmad- had been the most violent.

Outrage followed from civil society in West Bengal, in India and internationally. The CPI(M) and the police withdrew. Skirmishes continued on the bordering areas – the people of Nandigram villages complained every day of armed attacks by small groups of  harmad, which they had to repel using the force of numbers. The police stood by, a silent spectator.

In October 2007 the reports of attacks and skirmishes began to increase.. By the first week of November, it was obvious that an army of the harmad had entered the Nandigram villages and was going to recapture the area.  The villages were cordoned off and gangs of CPI(M) supporters attacked all of us who wanted to go into the villages. Again the police stood by, a willing accomplice. It was only after about 10 days of these happenings that we were able to visit the villages. Thousands had taken shelter in refugee camps. Villages were surrounded by the harmad – a frightening army of armed men with faces covered with black cloth and red scarves on their heads, the refugees said. Villages were burnt, houses were ransacked. Even women and children were not spared. A spate of rape and pillage followed. The BUPC responded by a peace march of people who tried to return to their villages in a procession. This unarmed procession was attacked by gun carrying harmad. Some of the processionists were “captured” by the harmad  and used as a human shield to invade the villages that still had to be “captured”.

Intervention by the CRPF was finally demanded by civil society and all Opposition political parties. Problems began within the Left Front itself and finally the CRPF presence was accepted by the State Government. It was only after the arrival of the CRPF on the 15th of November that things began to quieten down.

Further horrors kept unfolding. Mass graves were discovered in Khejuri, an area that had been under CPI(M) control earlier. Caches of arms were discovered, but the CRPF was not allowed to arrest many known criminals or carry out search operations properly.

With Panchayat elections close by, the CPI(M) tried its best to get rid of the CRPF and finally succeeded in downsizing the numbers there by February 2008. Voters in Nandigram were convinced that they would not be allowed to vote freely. Sure enough , during the run up to the elections in May 2008, violence again began escalating. A number of reports of intimidation of voters came in. The CRPF was again deployed in a large scale on the voting day. The uncomromising stand taken by an exceptional CRPF officer and the courage of the people there meant that there was a large voter turnout. The CPI(M) lost not just in Nandigram, but in the entire district. This seems to have finally cooled down the terror tactics being employed by them.

Nandigram is the first place where the Government has been forced to back out of its plans for an SEZ. It has become a byword in Bengal and in the rest of the country. People who protest against the Government start digging roads or blockading them as a sign of protest. Those defying the CPI(M) whip threaten to turn their areas into Nandigrams. The first protest adopted by the people of Mejia recently against pollution caused by transporting of fly ash was to dig up the road. At the present moment, the adivasis in Lalgarh and its surrounding areas are protesting against police excesses and they have also blockaded their roads- Nandigram style. They are building up all party people’s committees in villages to carry forward their struggle. The people of Nandigram have paid a huge price, but they have kept their land. And they have inspired others to struggle for their rights.

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