Nothing’s Right for Left
The state's large Muslim population, so far loyal to the Left, is expressing discontent over a number of issues: like the Sachar Committee findings which showed the economic status of Muslims in Bengal to be among the worst in the country
Satya Sivaraman Nandigram, West Bengal
The deep trenches that once blocked state officials and police from entering the area are now filled up. The paramilitary forces that kept warring ruling party and opposition activists apart are gone. Public transport plies again on newly repaired roads, as the local panchayats implement employment-generation schemes with vigour. Both farmers and agricultural workers are back in their fields and the markets bustle, stocked with fresh fish and vegetables.
Two years after the West Bengal police carried out a 'massacre' against peasants resisting government takeover of their land for an industrial project and many months of turmoil later, the historic battleground of Nandigram appears to be normal again. Or, at least, it seems to the casual eye as one drives through the villages and hamlets dotting this fertile delta land, tucked in between the Hooghly and Haldi rivers that meet the Bay of Bengal, a few kilometres away.
Like elsewhere in this state though, over three decades of uninterrupted 'party-police' rule of the CPM-dominated Left Front (LF) regime has ensured nothing, or so it seems on the surface. As another round of elections approach, this time for the Lok Sabha, tensions are rising and there is violence on a daily basis in these parts after a lull of several months. "We still cannot sleep at night for fear of being attacked," says Nishikanta Mondal, president of the Sonachura panchayat, that had borne the brunt of violence unleashed by the government and CPM machineries against villagers resisting the project. Every night, he complains, there is gunfire and bombs thrown by the CPM goons holed up in the neighbouring bastion at Khejuri across the Talpati canal.
Nishi Babu, as he is popularly known, used to be a longtime CPM activist in the area before quitting in the 1990s after he was upset over corruption within the party. When the anti-land acquisition movement started in 2007, he became a natural leader and soon found himself hunted down by both the police and the CPM musclemen forcing him to turn to the opposition Trinamool Congress (TMC) for support and protection.
This is a typical story in this area. This used to be a strong red bastion in Bengal for decades, but has now been swept into the gleeful, waiting arms of the TMC. In elections to the three-tier panchayat system in May last year, the TMC - which had backed and partly led the peasant agitation against the Indonesian chemical hub along with other resistance groups - routed the CPM in not just Nandigram, but the entire East Midnapur district picking up 32 out of 53 panchayat seats. It also got control over the zilla parishad in the district for the first time ever.
Later during the year, the Nandigram assembly constituency was won by the TMC in by-elections called due to the resignation of the sitting CPI MLA caught in a bribery scandal. The TMC candidate, Firoza Bibi, who lost her son in police firing the previous year, defeated the LF-backed CPI nominee Paramananda Bharati by 39,551 votes in a multi-cornered contest.
Little wonder then, as TMC supremo, Mamata Banerjee, kicked off her campaign for the Lok Sabha elections on March 14, she chose to start from Nandigram. Addressing a large gathering at the place where 14 villagers were killed in firing by the police and CPM cadre the same day in 2007, Mamata made it clear that the struggle would be central to her party's campaign. "It is Nandigram that has opened the door for change in West Bengal and it shall continue to do so," she said, promising to carry the 'holy earth' of Nandigram in an urn, throughout Bengal.
The agitations of Nandigram and Singur, led by the TMC in alliance with political and civil society groups, where peasants successfully resisted the setting up of the chemical hub and Nano car factory by the Tata group, have broken the magic grip of the CPM over the state's rural poor who are upset with the land acquisition policies of the LF. For Mamata and the TMC, which got a drubbing in the assembly elections in 2006, Nandigram is the pole with which to ram open the doors to power safely locked up by the CPM-led LF since 1977.
For the CPM leadership in Bengal, an additional worry is the impact Nandigram will have on other marginalised sections. In Nandigram, for example, a vast majority of the local population happens to be composed of Muslims and Dalits, who were among those affected the most due to state-
There is no coherent political mobilisation of Dalits as yet for lack of leadership despite some attempts by the BSP to make inroads. However, the state's large Muslim population, so far quite loyal to the Left, is increasingly expressing discontent over a number of issues - like the Sachar Committee findings which showed the economic status of Muslims in Bengal to be among the worst in the country. The events in Nandigram have added to this sense of disillusionment with the LF. "The only good thing with regard to Muslims is that in the last 30 years of Left rule in West Bengal, they were safe. What happened in Nandigram now puts a question mark on that, too," says Abu Taher, a member of the Bhumi Uchhed Pratirodh Committee, the peasant group that led the anti-SEZ agitation
Though the Muslim community does not feel discriminated against on religious grounds, there is a growing sense that they cannot blindly depend on the Left parties anymore to promote the interests of their community. This changed sentiment among Muslims has already benefitted the TMC in the last panchayat elections where it increased its state-wide tally considerably, while forcing it to quit the 'communal' BJP-led NDA and forging an alliance with the Congress.
While the Left Front and its allies won 35 out of 42 Lok Sabha seats in the state in 2004, this time around, poll observers predict, their tally will be down to a maximum of 20 seats. "The CPM might lose some seats in the general elections if the Congress-Trinamool alliance finally materialises," said CPM patriarch, Jyoti Basu, a few days before the two parties finalised their tie-up. Though the CPM leadership is putting on a brave face, insiders say they are bracing for the worst results they have had since the mid-1970s.
Around Nandigram, the stakes are very high for the CPM, whose strongman, Lakshman Seth, is a sitting MP from Tamluk constituency which includes the Nandigram area. Seth is widely regarded as the man behind the phenomenal violence unleashed on Nandigram peasants by both loyal and hired stormtroopers dubbed 'harmads', a term taken from the area's bad experience with Portuguese pirates two centuries ago who used to arrive in 'armadas'. "Lakshman Seth personifies the new breed of CPM leaders who climbed up the party hierarchy due to their ability to use raw muscle power to intimidate opponents, mobilise funds and win electoral battles," says Sanjay Mitra, former general-secretary of the Association for Protection of Democratic Rights (APDR), the oldest human-rights organisation in India.
In the last Lok Sabha polls, Seth romped home comfortably with 49 per cent of the votes compared to 44 per cent for his TMC rival, Suvendu Adhikari, and with a margin of nearly 50,000 votes. This time, going by the trends of the panchayat and assembly elections, Seth, a veteran CPM MP, is likely to be trounced - a possibility which is behind the rapid increase in violent incidents in the area in recent weeks.
Irrespective of how the election results turn out finally, the fact remains that the people of Nandigram have won the larger battle to prevent their land from being taken away. At a high cost, of course, with 38 people dead, 12 still missing, 14 women raped and thousands injured - and yet, a battle resulting in a resounding, convincing victory.
That is why, Nandigram has become an epic landmark for resistance movements across India. Indeed, no one in power anywhere - The CPM, TMC, Congress or whoever - will ever dare whisper the phrase 'land acquisition' near this area anymore - for a long, long time.