Land Is My Land
A Letter from Calcutta
by Anjana Basu
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14th March 2007: Fourteen people gunned down at a crossing in the blaze of day, sending a village called Nandigram in West Bengal onto the front page of every paper in India.
The numbers were not meant to be coincidental, nor was the shooting planned. It was meant to be a peaceful protest where members of the Bhumi Ucched, or Landless Trinamul Congress supporters, demonstrated against a proposed buyout of agricultural land by the Communist Government that had been ruling West Bengal for thirty years. The Communists were following the Chinese model of partial capitalism, realising that industrial investment in the state was necessary if West Bengal was to grow. With that in mind, they’d been signing contracts with Indonesia’s Salim Group, amongst others, for the setting up of Social Economic Zones, what became the ominous SEZs, a three-letter four-letter word in rural dialect.
Ominous because in the hands of the West Bengal Government land acquisition for the setting up of the SEZs became a matter of snatch and grab, highway robbery, money dropping into the wrong hands and, ultimately, murder.
Despite all the hype, the land snatching did not begin in Nandigram. It started in a village called Singur, which had been chosen by Tata Motors as ideal for setting up a plant to manufacture their ‘people’s car’, the Rs 1 lakh Nano. Tata chose the land over several other options and offered a large sum of money to be distributed amongst the rightful owners of the land on which they proposed to set up the plant. Unfortunately land titles in India are far from clear – there are the landowners who legally own the property, the tenant farmers who pay rent for their lands and the sharecroppers who work on a job basis for the tenant farmers and the landowners. The last two categories have no direct claim to the property and therefore no entitlement to any monetary compensation – though the Tatas had promised training followed by jobs to all those who were displaced by the plant.
Inevitably there were also people who did not agree to the land acquisition and were not happy at having a one-time sum of money thrust into their hands. They were luckier than those who protested and got nothing at all. And if they belonged to the Communist Party India(Marxist) and its many factions, they were luckier than those who came from the opposition and protested because, as party members, they had a greater chance of being favoured. The Trinamul led by Mamata Banerjee immediately took up cudgels for the landless and drew into their wake many other parties, like the CPI(Marxist Leninist) or, as they are better known, the Naxalites. Several farmer suicides and the rape murder of a Trinamul activist by a CPI M worker added grist to their mill.
Anti-Singur demonstrations at the Tata Centre in Calcutta held up traffic. But the Tatas and the West Bengal Government were unperturbed and the foundation stone laying went ahead. However, the plant surrounds had to be fortified with barbed wire because of frequent night-time assaults on the construction by activists from various parties. A director friend of mine who visited the site thought it looked something like a concentration camp, with straining attack dogs and searchlights flashing on barbed wire. There was also a whisper that the Tatas had not adequately recompensed the Trinamul Government for their intervention with landowners in Singur, though that was quick to die down as Singur in the face of unity between industrialist and government faded from the headlines.
But Nandigram then quickly took its place in the headlines.
At first it was news that the village Panchayats(governing bodies)were
determined that mosque and temple land should not be taken over by an SEZ.
The West Bengal Government, confident after what had happened in Singur,
made reassuring noises about not a stone being overturned without prior
notification and permission. But Nandigram’s villagers were not convinced,
and the village quickly split. On one side were the CPI-M supporters; on
the other the Bhumi Uchhed or Land Dispossessed Group spearheaded by the
Trinamul Congress. Supporting the Bhumi Uchhed, but keeping a very
low profile, was a group of Maoists who had apparently infiltrated Nandigram
from across the Jharkhand border – a kind of shadow presence making itself
felt by sabotage in the mines and by sniper fire from time to time.
The two sides very quickly came to blows, but the extent of the hostility wasn’t revealed till the deadly confrontation with the police on March 14th. Nor was the internecine warfare evident to the media. Whenever Nandigram made the news, the CPI-M government announced that everything was being negotiated peacefully.
The killings were all the more shocking because the villagers who had confronted the police had apparently gone prepared for an unarmed demonstration. There were women and children in the front ranks who had apparently been used as shields by their menfolk in an attempt to prevent what happened, so, while fourteen was the official figure, it is quite likely that there were many more dead who went uncounted. Certainly there was a flood of wounded at nearby hospitals in Sonachura and Tamluk.
The shooting raised an outcry all over the country, with the governor of West Bengal, Sri Gopal Krishna Gandhi, openly rebuking the West Bengal government for failing to control the police. In response, the CPI-M advised him against taking sides in a primarily political matter. But, heartened by Gandhi’s support, the Trinamul Congress launched a series of government shut downs which they called ‘humanitarian protests’. The official word ‘bandh’ (shut down or closure) had been declared illegal by the Calcutta High Court and parties calling for bandhs could be taken to court.
The Trinamul drew to themselves many other parties, including the Congress, India's oldest and most respected; the nationalist BJP; the CPI–ML; and various CPI-M allies. Caught on the defensive, the CPI-M government promised to rectify matters. The state’s official word on land acquisitions was that no one should be forced to part with land against their will unless it was absolutely necessary for the economic upliftment of society and that adequate compensation must be given to those who did so. Industrialisation, they pointed out, was a necessary evil if a state was to grow, but they would try to ensure that prime agricultural land was not given over to industrialists. Police camps were then set up, and the villagers seemed to go back to their normal lives, sowing paddy and going about the business of daily life.
The issue seemed to die down, though protests still simmered at the edge of the media consciousness. There were no further reported outbreaks until October just before Bengal’s Durga Puja festival. Then reports began to filter in that police camps set up to maintain law and order were being withdrawn from various points in Nandigram and that CPI-M’s more violent cadres were gradually infiltrating the nearby village of Khejuri. Between October 27th and 30th there were a series of attacks by CPI-M supporters on the Bhumi Ucched supporters. Laxman Seth, a CPI(M) MP, went on record as exhorting his party men with the words, "We have been pushed to the wall. The only option now is to kill or get killed. We have to fight till the last drop of blood in our bodies.”
Nandigram was sealed off from media access, and war broke out between CPI-M and Trinamul supporters for the control of Nandigram, which was a crucial centre of power in the upcoming panchayat elections. As in most cases, the smaller side, the Trinamul Bhumi Ucched got the worst of it, and women and children on both sides suffered most. Villages were torched. A thousand people were rendered homeless.
The CPI-M in West Bengal drummed up support from the all India Left Front leaders in capital while the Trinamul brought in activists like Medha Patkar, famed for her protests against the construction of a dam across the Narmada River which would leave countless villagers homeless, and even Arundhati Roy. Protest marches were organised and a sitdown protest was held in Calcutta, all to no avail. Marchers were turned back, and the West Bengal chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya insisted that the state’s position on Nandigram was a tit-for-tat reprisal for the Bhumi Uchhed’s provocative tactics.
Perhaps the minister should have taken some lessons in public relations, because the media picked up the ‘tit for tat’ and beamed the phrase nationwide. Nandigram quickly became the buzzword of the day. Intellectuals all over Calcutta who swore allegiance to the Marxists came out in protest at what they called crimes against humanity. The International Film Festival which took place every year was boycotted by filmmakers of the stature of Aparna Sen and Gautam Ghosh. Several intellectuals deliberately courted arrest at the main venue of the festival. They were not, they said, opposed to the festival but to the Communist-run Government that had organized it, a government that had forgotten that its role was governing impartially without political prejudice. Some of the film- makers and actors were taken to jail under token arrest but released the next morning.
On the afternoon of November 14th a protest march fanned out across the streets of Calcutta led by the city’s most celebrated intellectuals. They claimed that their march was impartial, designed to condemn police and state brutality. Mamata Banerjee intended to join the march but was prevented from doing so because it was felt that public opinion might condemn her for organizing violent anti-government city and state shutdowns that had cost daily wage earners hard-earned money.
For the Chief Minister of West Bengal Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, who had once been minister for culture under the Marxist government led by his predecessor Jyoti Basu, this was the unkindest cut of all. He had considered himself to be an intellectual amongst intellectuals and numbered many of the marchers as his friends.
In response, the leftists organized their own protest march the following day, a disorganized, confused affair which looked very much part of the same tit-for-tat tactics that had got them into trouble in the first place.
Finally the government was forced to call in the Central Reserve Police Force to patrol Nandigram – though, to be fair, this was something that they had originally suggested in the early days of the conflict. For the first time in their thirty years of rule the Marxists came across as undecided and weak.
Disruptive political elements in Calcutta were quick to seize on the opportunities of the moment. Nandigram then spawned a series of protest marches that disrupted traffic but had little or nothing to do with the central issue. Taslima Nasreen, the dissident Bangladeshi writer who had been living peacefully in Bengal, had her visa renewed and a riot broke out in central Calcutta led by extremist Muslims who added that their protest was not just about Taslima (whom they saw as anti-Islamic) but also about the government’s inhumanity in Nandigram. When police were unable to quell the violence and a police inspector was shot, the state government, acting promptly for a change, called out the army. The army staged a flag march and declared curfew in certain parts of the city.
As a fallout of all this Taslima Nasreen was forced to leave her home in Calcutta for protective custody in Delhi. Her disappearance occasioned less protest than might be expected, though few of Kolkata’s intellectuals could have predicted the political violence hard on the heels of their peaceful protest. It was later whispered that Nasreen’s departure was actually because she intended to write a kiss-and-tell book, naming several prominent Indian politicians with whom she had had affairs.
Taslima’s plight, however, was overlooked in the greater outcry the state government was confronting. The High Court found the CPI(M) guilty of deliberate negligence in the March firing at Nandigram. While the Left Front did their best to control the damage, the judiciary refused to budge. The all-India Communist Party head, Prakash Karat, refused to comment on the situation, saying only that, while the issue of Nandigram needed to be discussed in detail, there were far more pressing problems worth the Left Front’s attention, namely India’s recent nuclear pact with the US.
In Bengal, intellectuals said that industrialization in a primarily agricultural state was bound to result in peasants being robbed of their lands, homes and livelihoods. No less a person than Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize-winning Economist, presumably enlisted by the state government as its spokesperson, declared that industrialization was vital for a developing economy.
What was even more disastrous for the Left Front was the fact that its
own cadres were busy recapturing land lost to the Bhoomi Ucched in Nandigram
even while the CRPF forces were taking over the territory. There were explosions
reported, and unidentified bodies were discovered under bushes and
trees. There was also a whisper that Maoists had infiltrated Nandigram
from neighbouring states at the invitation of the Bhoomi Uchhed and set
up training camps. Star Ananda, one of the regional TV channels, broadcast
footage of snipers randomly picking off passersby in the Nandigram area
from bunker-like shelters. When a cache of grenades were discovered the
Left Front triumphantly claimed that the violence in Nandigram had its
justification. If Maoists were involved, the violent response was warranted;
the government had a right to defend the villagers against outside
The Trinamul Congress demanded the Chief Minister’s resignation yet again while the author Mahasweta Devi spearheaded a drive to gather clothes and medicines for the refugees who had been herded into camps near Tamluk.
Ultimately, like most media circuses, the whole thing soon blew over. Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, after being kept out the public eye for several months by Jyoti Basu and his colleagues, paid a visit to Nandigram and declared that no Social Economic Zone would be set up in the region and that the CPI(M) would do all they could to ensure that life went on peacefully.
The land reverted back to the people, the CRPF gradually withdrew. A website www.14thmarch.com/ was set up on the first anniversary of the police firing by the artistes of Kolkata who had marched in protest the year before on November 14th and who had then founded a Forum of Artistes, Cultural Activists and Intellectuals. The “objective” given on the website reads in part: “[T]he West Bengal Government of late has been forcibly acquiring rich arable agricultural green lands in the various parts of the state on the false pretext of industrialisation and development. All of those people who have refused or rejected this heinous scheme of the government, and have been raising their voices against this undemocratic procedure of land acquisition, are being victimised by administrative and police repression, brutalised by the cadres of the ruling party.”
The Forum has accused the government of proceeding in a “fascist-like manner to silence all voices of dissent and conducting a shameless campaign of lies”. Writer Mahasweta Devi, actor Aparna Sen, theatre director Bratya Basu, academicians Amlan Dutta and Santosh Bhattacharya are amongst its members.
A year after the shooting the word ‘Nandigram’ is still provocative. Mamata Banerjee uses it as a byword of her campaign. Recently a Nandigram woman claimed to have been raped by CPI(M) cadres. Mamata marched to Nandigram only to be turned back by the villagers who told her that if she, Mamata[???], was unable to protect herself she was unable to protect them. It was also implied that they felt her concern was related to the forthcoming panchayat[explained above] elections. Afterwards, the woman who claimed to have been raped was examined by doctors at a government hospital in Kolkata[Calcutta] and, while they agreed she might have been struck, they were certain she had not been raped. Mamata Banerjee responded that the doctors were obviously in the pay of the government.
The elections were finally held in Singur and Nandigram amongst other places, with outbreaks of violence throughout the state. When the votes were counted, it was revealed that the Trinamul Congress had won more seats than they had since 2003, inflicting on the Left Front government a very telling victory. In Singur, however, the villagers confessed that their lives had improved greatly after the building of the Tata factory there.
If nothing else, what the events in Nandigram have done is to give a
name to agricultural protest against the seizure of land for government
or industrial purposes to build factories on. There are Nandigram-type
incidents being recorded in Maharashtra and in the neighbouring state of
Orissa, where the locals are fighting the erection of a plant by Korean
steel giant Posco. The tribals there say that the land is “angry” and have
carried out a ritual to propitiate the gods of the hills. Whether the CPI(M)
will be able to propitiate the human powers and bring peace to Nandigram
remains to be seen.
CPI M) Communist Party of India (Marxist)
(Anjana Basu's novel Curses in Ivory was published by HarperCollins India in January 2003. A second novel, Black Tongue, was published in 2007 by India Ink/Roli. Ms Basu is also the author of The Agency Raga, a collection of short stories [Orient Longman], and her poems have been featured in an anthology published by Penguin India. Her short fiction has appeared in Wolfhead Quarterly, Amethyst Review, Antigonish Review, Blue Moon Review, Eclectica, Kimera and Recursive Angel.)