Ten Years On

Revisiting Nandigram

Sandip Bandyopadhyay

The Youths in West Bengal now studying in colleges and universities have a faint idea of what had happened in Nandigram ten years ago. Surprisingly, some of those who were active in the solidarity movement in those days can now recall neither the details of the Nandigarm movement nor the names of the martyrs. Has Nandigram already passed into history as a past event only? This short essay pays homage to the martyrs, tribute to the struggling peasants and revisits the happenings in Nandigram that had unfolded exactly a decade earlier.

Nandigram, an essentially agricultural area in East Medinipur district in West Bengal, rose in revolt in the very beginning of 2007 against the then CPM-led Left Front Government’s decision to acquire farmland for the purpose of setting up a Special Economic Zone (SEZ). The Nandigram people immediately reacted to the official notice on land-acquisition and violence erupted in the early hours of 7 January. The peasants cutting across religious identities and political leanings were determined not to part with their land under any circumstances. Their reaction turned violent when they learnt that armed CPI(M) cadres were gathering together with arms in a house obviously to teach the agitating peasants a lesson. The firing on that day killed three young boys—Bharat Mondal, Sk Selim and Biswajit Maity. On the other hand, Shankar Samanta, a local CPI(M) leader, was burnt alive in a house which the angry peasants set on fire. With this began the saga of Nandigram peasant insurrection which continued throughout the year and proved a major catalytic factor behind the downfall of the Left Front government in 2011. The role of Mamata Banerjee and her party Trinamul Congress (TMC) championing the peasants’ cause in Nandigram also deserved to be reckoned with.

Nandigram seems to have learnt a lesson from the Singur example only year earlier. In Singur, in Hugli district, peasants rebelled against the official bid to acquire agricultural (high fertile) land for the upcoming Tata Car (NANO) factory. Despite their strong resistance, the Singur people however could not stop the police from occupying the land by applying force on December 2, 2006. It appears that after the 7th January violence, Nandigram realised that fresh police crackdown must be stopped by any means. Hence the angry peasants dug up the roads and put up blockades in order to prevent the police from entering the villages. For around three months Nandigram virtually became a police-free zone open only to the journalists and members of civil society—intellectuals, rights activists and sympathetic groups or individuals.

This, however, does not mean that Nandigram spent those three months peacefully. There were regular bomb-throwing and other forms of attack from across Khejuri, on the other side of a small rivulet, known as a CPI(M) stronghold. Young boys would keep awake by turns to safeguard the villages. It was not an easy task because Nandigram is a considerably large area comprising several villages. One village, say Gangra, is quite distant from Garh Chakraberia—both parts of Nandigram. Uncertainty gripped the entire area.

Matters came to a head and took a horribly violent turn in the morning of March 14. A large police force arrived on the pretext of removing road-blocks and asked the Nandigram people to clear away. As expected, the people did not relent and the police accompanied by the CPI(M) cadres opened fire on the unarmed rural people. In no time, all hell broke loose in the area. People were found lying on the open field severely injured. Meanwhile, the party cadres pounced on the villagers and raped or sexually assaulted a number of women. It was, by far, unprecedented in the history of West Bengal and reminiscent of the police atrocities on the rural women in Tamluk (not very far from Nandigram) during the Quit India Movement in 1942.

The firing killed at least 16/17 people including two women Supriya Jana and Basanti Kar and Puspendu Mondal, a cousin-brother of Bharat who had falled to bullets on 7 January, 2007. Most of fact-finding reports have put the death toll at 14; but it was definitely higher. The CBI team found a dead body in the course of their investigation on April 1, 2007. One Subrata Samanta who was found missing on that fateful day still remains untraced. Moreover, one Tapas Manna succumbed to his injuries months later on 29/30 October, 2006 at the SSKM hospital in Kolkata. Of the sexual victims, the name Radharani Aari of Gokulnagar village received wide attention; but there were other women—Kabita Das, Aangurbala Das, Gouri and some others who spoke about their experiences in unhestitating terms before the electronic media and the Public Tribunal held in July 2007. (Frontier, still advertises the Tribunal report entitled ‘What Happened in Nandigram’ which has otherwise been largely forgotten.)

Visiting Nandigram in the last week of March (2007) as a member of a medical relief team, this writer saw bloodstains on the walls, faces of traumatised people, damaged huts and found children talking about ‘rape’ and pointing to a poster announcing ‘We shall tear apart the skin of Buddha’, obviously targeting the then Chief Minister of West Bengal. Some other stories of torture, brutal killing of children, sending away dead bodies across the Haldi river were also doing the rounds; but they haven’t yet been confirmed. One woman told this writer that housewives were dragged out of their homes by the ‘Party Cadres’ by ‘catching hold of their breasts’. Two other women beside her endorsed it. This single testimony points to the degree of torture inflicted upon the people of Nandigram.

Violence however did not end in Nandigram in the wake of 14 March. Bomb throwing, this time, coupled with occasional gunshots, from the ‘enemy area’ of Khejuri continued unabted. The Talpati canal turned into a borderline between the two rival areas. It wrecked the community life in Nandigram and Khejuri as well. As one schoolboy told this writer, he couldn't go to his private tutor who happened to be a resident of Khejuri. On the other hand, housewives in Khejuri stopped visiting their parents living in Nandigram. Some common peasants lost their lives on both sides. Story had it that one Sunita Mondal, a housewife in Khejuri, had been raped and killed. According to the estimate of this writer (Frontier, 9-15 March, 2008), more than fifty people were killed in the year-long violence in Nandigram in 2007.

Controversy around the exact number of deaths and the political identity of the dead however remained unresolved. Meanwhile, fresh violence broke out towards the end of the year, on and from 7 November—incidentally the 90th anniversary of Bolshevik Revolution. Many people in Nandigram fled their homes and their huts were ravaged. One reporter found an injured cow shedding ‘tears of blood’. Journalists were stopped from entering Nandigram on 9-10 November, hence the number of casualties still remains unrecorded. There was firing on a peaceful procession on the 10th and official report put the number of deaths at four only. But as the media reports including those from the centrally controlled Aakashvani (AIR) poured in, the number proved to be far higher. The most scathing comment on the Nandigram situation in November came from no other than the-then honourable Governor Gopalkrishna Gandhi who bitterly said on November 9 : ‘The audour of Deepavali has been dampened in the whole state by the events in Nandigram’ (The 9th November was the day of Kali Puja and Deepavali). It is to note that after 14 March, Mr Gandhi had gone to Tamluk hospital to give a healing touch to the victims writhing in pain in their hospital beds. Some other victims were brought to the SSKM in Kolkata. On 17 March this writer met in the Kolkata hospital one such victim, Salil Das Adhikari, whose nose had almost been smashed by bullets. Forgetting pain, he, however, was worrying about his wife.

Yes, Nandigram set a historic example. The great Tebhaga movement of the sharecroppers had died down by the end 1950s. The peasant upsurge in Naxalbari in May 1967 opened up a new chapter in the political history of post-colonial West Bengal and of India in general. Forty years later, Nandigram in 2007 scripted another chapter. Together with Kalinganagar and Posco in Orissa (2006) it brought to the fore the issue of using cultivable land for business purposes and compelled the Central Government to amend the century-old Land Acquisition Act of 1894.

Both in Singur and Nandigram, the movement started off spontaneously and known supporters of the CPI(M) stood against the government upholding the peasants’ cause. The TMC and SUCI(C) initially helped organise the rural people, but they rose up with their peasant identity and without the banner of any established political party. Thanks to Mamata Banerjee, both the movements however came under the leadership of the TMC. What is striking is that Nandigram drew upon Singur and set a pattern which the humiliated tribals would initially follow in Lalgarh in November 2008. In Lalgarh too, the tribals blocked the road to prevent entry of the police. In April 2009, this writer found an almost liberated zone in Lalgarh with no trace of the police. The only public demand was that the police must apologise to the community for their unjust action. This kind of self-respect movement was unique in West Bengal.

The tragic part of the story, however is that while the present dispensation at the centre is trying to dilute the pro-peasant provisions in the amended Land Acquisition Act (2013), the police officer responsible for the genocide in Nandigram has been promoted to a higher position by the present West Bengal government whose landslide victory in 2011 owed much to its role in Singur and Nandigram. The government has undoubtedly played a commendable role by sticking to its demand in the case of Singur. It has also provided some relief to the people of Nandigram. But should the crime committed in Nandigram go unpunished? Should the legacy of Nandigram remain a memorable event only?

Vol. 49, No.26, Jan 1 - 7, 2017