People’s Democracy, Vol. XXXI, No. 13, April 01, 2007
THE chief minister of West Bengal and the CPI(M) have expressed their deep distress and regret at the police firings and violence in Nandigram on March 14. Sympathisers, friends of the Left, democratic minded citizens have expressed their strong feelings on the issue. The matter is before the Kolkata High Court which has asked for more details. Once the investigation is over, action will no doubt be taken against those responsible for the excesses. The authorities have also registered FIRs on complaints of rape, made by four women several days after the reported incident. Urgent investigations are required and if found true, exemplary punishment must be meted out to those guilty. Till now two cases of rape have been confirmed by medical reports and both these are prior to the March 14 police action, the victims being CPI(M) supporters. The guilty must be brought to book and punished in these two cases also.
This is not the only violence that the people of Nandigram have faced. Less known, their stories and tragedies ignored by the national media, around three thousand men, women and children of 12 villages of Nandigram, have been forcibly driven out of their homes and have been living in camps outside Nandigram since January 3 because they are known members or sympathisers of the CPI(M). Those killed or beaten by the police, those injured in hospital, those thousands displaced in camps are almost all poor, agricultural workers, marginal peasants or artisans, a substantial number of them are dalits. The CPI(M)’s opponents speak in terms of “their poor” and “our poor”. When representatives of the displaced sat on dharna in Kolkata, they were mocked at by Mamta Banerjee leader of the Bhumi Ucched Pratirodh Committee (BUPC) who contemptuously brushed aside their suffering as ‘ CPI(M) drama.” The NGO activists and fact-finding teams who have been to Nandigram have not included the trauma of these families even as a footnote in their reports. This is not our understanding or approach. We stand in solidarity with the families of those killed and the injured in hospital just as we do with the displaced.
It is necessary to normalise the situation. At present because of the continuing tension and refusal to allow the administration to function in the area, normal life is completely disrupted. Children have been the worst affected. In just one relief camp in Tekhali there are 67 children, 58 of whom have been forced to miss school for the last three months. Mid-day meal schemes have been stopped in 127 centres. 275 women’s self-help groups have stopped functioning. Poor people who have to move out of the area for livelihood purposes are afraid to do so. Who gains from this division of the poor, from their feelings of insecurity, loss of livelihood? Who are the forces responsible for the situation in Nandigram? There is a deep political game afoot in West Bengal which has many layers that need to be laid bare before the people.
RESISTANCE AGAINST WHAT?
It is said that the Nandigram mobilisation has been a great peaceful resistance movement. When I met the injured women in the PG Hospital in Kolkata and asked them the reason for the mobilisation on March 14 they said they had been told that the police were coming in to takeover their land. “We will never give up our land” they said. I asked them whether they had known that the chief minister had said no land is being taken. Their answer was revealing: “The BUPC has told us that the plan for land acquisition has already been made by the CPI(M) and that is why we have to guard our land day and night.”
Why should the BUPC continue to run a campaign based on utter lies on the threat of land acquisition? Since January 9 the chief minister and government officials have been repeatedly stating that there will be no land acquisition in Nandigram since the farmers do not want it. Indeed he is the only chief minister in the country who has made such a categorical statement that a condition for land acquisition must be farmer consent. This has been a longstanding demand of all those including the CPI(M) who have been opposing the arbitrary takeover of land from farmers in different states. Normally when there is a struggle on a specific demand, in this case against land being taken over, if the demand is accepted it is claimed as a victory of the struggle and naturally the agitation is called off.
In the huge farmers struggle in Ganganagar and other districts of Rajasthan where the CPI(M) plays an important role, police firing and violence under the BJP government between 2004 and 2006 has taken the lives of 17 farmers including one woman. The deafening silence against those killings of those who claim today to be the main defenders of farmer interests tells its own story. But the point to be made is that in the first phase of the agitation after the government was forced to agree to the demands concerning water sharing, the agitation was called off. Later when the BJP government reneged on its assurance the agitation resumed. It is precisely because the interests of farmers, the rural poor or the issue of saving the land is not the real agenda of the “resistance” in Nandigram that the chief minister’s statement was ignored. It is for this reason that the main parties in the committee, the Trinamool and the Congress have continuously boycotted the over 20 meetings called by the district administration to resolve the issue. The agenda is clearly only one, shared by all the disparate elements of the committee from the right to the extreme Left and including the various assorted foreign funded NGOs, namely, to reverse the massive mandate given to the CPI(M) in the last elections. It is a straight political battle, not to do with bhumi ucched (land displacement) but for CPI(M) “ucched.”
NOT PEACEFUL, NOT DEMOCRATIC
There was nothing peaceful about the BUPC organised protest on January 3 and subsequently. That was the day a team from the central government was visiting the area as a village was going to be recognised as a “nirmal” district. Using that as a pretext the committee succeeded in whipping up a genuine fear among the local communities, created by the Haldia Development Authority notice that the team had come to finalise the takeover of their land. The fear and concern among a wide section of people in the area was used as a sanction for violence. Two gram panchayat offices were attacked and locked up. The two pradhans, Sameerun Bibi and Lakshman Mandal were driven out of the village. Houses of CPI(M) members and sympathisers were identified in an organised way and attacked. In one day, 34 homes were burnt, 41 houses were broken into and household goods smashed, 47 houses were looted. Thousands were driven out. Sobita Sumanta is one of the many displaced women who had come to meet the various authorities in Kolkata. Her husband Shankar Samanta was an elected gram panchayat member. On January 3 he had tried to reason with the leaders of the committee not to indulge in violence. He resisted attempts to drive out CPI(M) sympathisers from the villages. He paid the price for it. On January 7 he was burnt alive by an armed group of people. Kanika Mandal is also among the displaced. On January 3, her husband and two young sons were forced to flee from their home in Sonachura. She and her younger daughter Sunita, a bright student in Class 9 continued to live in the village under constant threat. On February 10, at around noon mother and daughter were working in the field. Sunita returned early to the house. When her mother came back she found her daughter killed. The medical report confirmed rape. She was warned not to follow up the case with the police. She fled the village and is now in the camp. Kakoli Giri was driven out of her village of Kalcharanpur along with her husband and children. On March 3, she went back to check on her belongings. She was surrounded by a group of men who gang raped her. Since she had not returned, her anxious son came in search of her. He found her lying unconscious and somehow brought her back to the camp. Her medical report has confirmed rape. Krishna, an activist of the AIDWA took her to meet the women’s commission. The women’s commission was prevented from following up the report. The police have been unable to follow the investigation leave alone arrest those responsible. Krishna herself received death threats for taking up the case and lives in fear. Earlier a police personnel had been lynched, and his body thrown into the river. Not a single person has been arrested for these murder and rapes. They have all taken shelter behind the “peaceful resistance.”
The displaced women, each with a personal tragedy to narrate, are bitter when asked why they did not resist. We were unprepared, it was so unexpected, and they were fully prepared and armed. Do you think they drove us out with flowers, they ask, the men were armed with guns and axes. They say that all political activity in the area in opposition to the BUPC is banned literally with arms. On January 29 the CPI(M) and Kisan Sabha had organised a big rally in an area neighbouring Nandigram. The people in the two worst affected panchayats were warned not to attend the rally. But some still did. On the following day, 14 more families were driven out of their village for defying the dictat. There are approximately 7000 women who are members of the AIDWA in the affected area. Today almost one third of them, have been forced to leave their homes. The rest who are in the villages live in fear and terror sending out messages from time to time about their plight. Among those forcibly driven out are 13 panchayat members including women. What about their democratic and human rights?
After the successful forced displacement of thousands of CPI(M) families, the area was barricaded. Over 116 culverts, bridges and roads were broken and dug up. Four panchayat offices have been attacked. Government officials including teachers and employees have not been allowed to enter. Any other government would have immediately sent in its forces to ensure an end to this lawlessness. The West Bengal government refrained from doing so precisely because it believed that it was essential to start a political process. But this approach was rejected by the opposition. Since there are no elected members in some of the areas, no government officials accountable, there is a kind of dictatorship of the leaders of the BUPC who operate according to their will. Money is being reportedly collected from every household in the name of protection, every house has to send one person to “guard” the village and if they do not do so they have to pay a fine. There were 17 reported criminal offences in the area in this period with no action taken.
Evidence available and reported on some of the Bengali TV channels shows the meticulous planning of the BUPC preceding the incidents of March 14. Recorded conversations of organisers owing allegiance to the TMC clearly indicate the amount of money spent on procuring arms, bombs etc. The date of the administration’s plan to start rebuilding the roads and culverts and the police and administrative move to reestablish the government’s presence in the area was known to the organisers. The main concern expressed in the taped conversations is how to prevent the seizure of weapons by the police. Names of two TMC leaders are also mentioned. The taped conversations reveal that the planning included holding a puja in one area, and mobilising of women and children in school uniform to act as a shield for the armed men who attacked the police. There is also video footage available of the men lurking behind the women with guns. The utter cynicism and criminal callousness of those who deliberately used women and children as a shield while wielding arms is unprecedented. Of those killed, two died due to bomb injuries, one due to injury from a sharp weapon, and a few more due to gunshot injuries which were not police bullets. Who was throwing these bombs and wielding arms? There is a totally false campaign that the CPI(M) men went into the area along with the police. This is being linked to the arrests of ten men reportedly CPI(M) men, who were found in a brick kiln by the CBI team with arms and ammunition. No doubt the investigations will reveal their role and the reason for their presence in Tekhali. This incidentally is the area where a CPI(M) camp for displaced people is set up and which had been brutally attacked on January 5, leading to the deaths of several people. It was once again attacked on March 21 and the camp itself was sought to be burnt down but fortunately there were no casualties because many of the inmates were in Kolkata that day. But to link this up with a so-called joint operation of the police and the CPI(M) in Nandigram on March 14, is a deliberate canard to shield the role of the armed groups in the barricaded area.
No, there is little that is democratic or peaceful about the “resistance.”
There is a gang-up of political parties ranging from the BJP, the TMC, the Congress, the SUCI and the various naxal outfits. On March 17, the Maoists issued a statement calling for a Bangla bandh on March 20. The secretary of the CPI-Maoist, Soumen also wrote a letter to Mamta Banerjee published by some Bengali newspapers extending full support to her and assuring the backing of the Maoists for “the resistance struggle.” The letter states “We were there in Singur, we are there in Nandigram and we will stay. We will not leave the place.” Such statements should not be dismissed as rhetoric. The geographical location of this belt is crucial for the spread of the Maoists “liberated” belt stretching from areas of Chattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa. Bengal is the big block and barrier in the Maoist thrust to the east. Already there are reports that the sea route through the Bay of Bengal is being used by the Maoists to come into Nandigram. Undoubtedly there are huge arms stockpiles in the area. Neither the CBI team or the local police has been able to go to any of these areas. In fact the police withdrawal from the area after the March 14 has further facilitated the entry of the Maoists.
Surprisingly, the High Court which made an unprecedented intervention ordering a CBI inquiry without so much as hearing the state government has not yet taken note of these developments. The plan of digging up roads and areas and preventing the entry of officials in different parts of Bengal has now been adopted as a strategy by the TMC. In a thinly attended meeting in Deganga on March 25, Mamta Banerjee has given a call to “create areas free from the CPI(M) and the government.” The implications of this are ominous. In the last few days Bengal has witnessed incidents when miscreants armed with bombs and pipeguns have attacked CPI(M) Party offices. Rumours to mislead the peasantry about land acquisition are deliberately spread. The Party has adopted a policy of utter restraint. The challenge will be met with a widespread political campaign approaching all sections of the people with the facts.
But what however to be noted is the close coordination between the TMC and the group of NGOs functioning under different platforms, but united in the BUPC. In fact the NGOs and some nationally known figures and commentators have provided a cover of so-called impartiality to the reactionary political forces operating. In fact it is they who have more or less taken over the public face of the anti-CPI(M) campaign.
Concerted Campaign of Misinformation
One part of the campaign is a number of highly exaggerated and sometimes self-contradictory reports from various sources about the incidents of March 14 and subsequent events. Wild allegations have been leveled at the Party from the killing of children, mass rape of women to massacre and burying of dead bodies. Three such investigation reports have been circulating on the net. The first of these is by a team of the Association for Protection of Democratic Rights which claims to have been ‘deputed by the High Court.’ A perusal of the High Court order makes it clear that there is no such team deputed by the High Court. However the APDR are the petitioners in the High Court case. The second report is that of Medha Patkar and company called the All India fact-finding team report. The third is the CPI-ML team report that was led by its general secretary Dipankar Bhattacharya. On the night of March 14 itself , wild rumours were circulating through SMS and e-mail by NGOs in different states about the violence against children. There is no doubt that the children of Nandigram’s affected areas have been severely traumatised by the violence since January 3 and the complete disruption of their routine. Everything must be done to help the children. But look at the “impartial” reports: The APDR report says ‘ Children were murdered indiscriminately, bodies have been thrown into the nearby Chuniburi river.’ The next sentence reads ‘Eight children of primary schools have been killed by the murderers and then all those children were buried in a particular place in the Bhangabhera area.’ The Patkar report says ” 35 children are missing… children from other villages are also missing. The parents apprehend that they are killed and their bodies abducted. Uniforms of two school children were found in nearby bushes. Incidents of children being killed and torn apart by pulling aside their two legs were also reported.” The ML report says: Women have recounted their children being torn apart…” Yet not a single report of a single missing child has been filed with the police. Why did not these leaders help the mothers register cases with the police? Even an ordinary citizen leave alone such internationally recognised eminent individuals would have considered it their bounden duty to file complaints of “children being torn apart.’ But they did not. Clearly such reports are concocted with the one aim to spread rumours and inflame passions. The situation of women is also highly coloured. The first reports of rape were revealed to the BJP team. The team said that after detailed interviews with women hospitalised, two women said that they were raped by unknown policemen. This was on March 17. The same day the “two women” becomes “women raped and molested” implying a large number of women were affected in the Patkar report but no fresh FIRs were filed. The ML report takes it further “there were gang rapes and brutal assaults of a sexual nature…” But did they meet any of the women? Their report reads “the women we spoke to spoke of six other rape victims who were not examined due to pressure from above.” A report from an NGO calling itself the Medical Service Centre (MSC) which has been the source of information for the media on the charge of “mass rapes” claimed that four of the women in the hospital said they themselves were rape victims. There are further charges made that on the night of March 14, after the firing, there was ” mass rape of the women.” The Patkar report says ” the police and cadres dragged people out and raped and molested the women inside..” The ML report links the rapes with the arrests of the alleged CPI(M) men from Tekhali. It reports the arrests thus ” The CBI sleuths who raided the brick kiln came across.. women’s underclothes.’
This utterly false reporting is reminiscent of the highly motivated campaign several decades ago when the Left front was in its infancy and under severe attack, an incident of a badly managed function in Rabindra Sarobar on April 6, 1969 became the focus of a vicious campaign that under the Left Front, goondas had a field day. A newspaper report of the time is illustrative that described “torn pieces of sarees and a good number of underclothes were found scattered all over the place.” A huge campaign started against the Left and the CPI(M) in particular. Fact finding committees were setup to defend “human rights and a League to be formed for defence as during the nazi regime.” 175 MPs from different parties issued a statement which spoke about “mass scale molestation of women, women being stripped, jumping into the lake to save their honour, several dead bodies of women have been recovered from the lake water..” and so on. The enquiry that was set up established conclusively that this was a huge fabrication. Yet another unfortunate case was that of Champala Sardar. Champala was used to concoct a totally fabricated case of rape against CPI(M) men by the TMC at the time of the 1993 panchayat elections. The CPI(M) men named by Champala were arrested. She was cruelly paraded at meeting after meeting by Mamata Banerjee as a symbol of CPI(M) criminality. The opposition campaign focussed on the issue. Later it was found that the case was fabricated and all the men were acquitted. Champala herself was abandoned soon after the elections were over.
The plight of women in Nandigram causes deep concern to all those who have worked with women victims of violence. Police action may have involved cases of brutality which may not exclude those of a sexual nature. As has been stated earlier a proper investigation into the complaints is essential and action required against those guilty. But to exaggerate and concoct reports for narrow political ends is insulting to the dignity of the women. It also undermines the hard struggle by women’s organisations to give extra weightage to the statements of the women victims where medical evidence is not available. But if women are used as tools in a politically motivated campaign as in Nandigram by the BUPC it undermines the very credibility of the demand.
The immediate aim of the TMC led campaign has been openly stated to be the next round of panchayat elections scheduled for May 2008. The Congress party in the state has even demanded president’s rule. A union minister from the state has made the most intemperate statements against the chief minister. The aim is to continuously provoke incidents in the name of saving the interests of farmers. The CPI(M) will have to face a combined onslaught of all these political forces in the state working in tandem with the ultra Left and being provided a cover by some self-serving NGOs.
But the implications of the current campaign against the Party are not limited to Bengal alone. In the present national political situation the CPI(M) has been playing a crucial role in defence of the interests of the working classes and the rural poor putting forward a set of alternative policies. This stand has received wide recognition and caused much consternation to the neo-liberalisers. The BJP also knows that the CPI(M) is a big hindrance in what it considers its comeback trail which is why even though it does not have a single MLA in Bengal, it has focused its national campaign against the CPI(M). The cadre of the Party who are being villified today are those who have selflessly fought to defend secularism and the unity of the people and defended the interests of the working people. The effort is to demoralise the Party and villify it, to isolate it and thus weaken the only credible opposition to the exploitative policies of the ruling classes. It is also not a coincidence that US officials in India held an unprecedented meeting with a leader involved in the mobilisations of the minority community in Nandigram. The categorical position the CPI(M) has taken against the strategic partnership with the US being pushed by the Indian ruling classes and a section of the establishment, is reason enough for these interests to lend their support to the anti-CPI(M) platforms.
Some well intentioned commentators have called on the CPI(M) to introspect on the different issues that have arisen. That is a process which is an intrinsic part of the Party’s functioning at all levels. Appropriate lessons are drawn from the collective experience of critically analysing the Party’s work and policies with a view to addressing and removing weaknesses, lapses and gaps whenever and wherever they exist. The most widespread campaign is required throughout the country to explain not only to our friends but also to our critics and to the people in general the context of the Nandigram developments and to launch a strong united campaign to counter the highly motivated campaign against the CPI(M) and the government it heads in West Bengal.