Friday, May 16, 2008

The Hunting Party Returns

Nandigram continues to be a test case for the CPM in West Bengal, turning a mere panchayat poll into a theatre of war. RAGHU KARNAD's eyewitness account uncovers the truth and lies of the party’s stand. Photographs by SHAILENDRA PANDEY

ON THE EVE of panchayat polls, Nandigram has the look of a general election and the feel of a war zone. The flag squads have done their jobs thoroughly: road signs, vehicles, houses are blanketed with party insignia. In Tamluk, the statue of freedom fighter Khudiram Bose has a Trinamool banner pinned over his face. But it’s the CPM’s colour that dominates the eye: red pennants every twenty feet, as though some dominant local species is flowering in season.

Ordinarily, panchayat polls are not the most exciting events in the political landscape. Yet the atmosphere here is heavy with tension and watchfulness. Since the polls were announced in early April, violence has surged back to the surface in Nandigram — the third wave of unrestrained political aggression since the Left Front government’s decision to build a petrochemical SEZ first convulsed the area. The most frequently used word here is harmad: originally used to describe Portuguese raiders, it means attacker or murderer, and residents feel like the harmad are everywhere around them.

PEOPLE FIRST HEARD about 46-year-old Radharani Ari in April 2007, at the height of the resistance. She and her husband were among the farmers who joined the Bhoomi Ucched Pratirodh Committee (BUPC) — literally, the Committee Against Land Acquisition — in January, after hearing their farmland was going to be taken away by the government.

She was part of the peaceful blockade on Bhangaberia bridge on March 14, 2007, where the police infamously opened fire on the protestors, killing 14. Radharani hid in a ditch, but was found by a group of masked men. They beat her unconscious, dragged her into a field and raped her with a tree-branch. After a month in hospital, she became a fiery and vocal witness to CPM brutality.

This year, after the elections were declared, she says that every night CPM cadre held rallies, taking note of who did not join. On April 11, a month before polling day, men wearing red wristbands stormed into Radharani’s house as she was about to eat dinner. Again, she was dragged into a field and gang-raped.

We meet Radharani in the courtyard of the Nandigram block hospital, where she and her husband are camping, wearing donated clothes, afraid to go home. Her medical examination describes “injuries on the lower body,” but says no traces of semen were found. The police filed an FIR, but made no arrests. “I would do anything to change this rapist government,” she says.

2007 WAS SUPPOSED to be a year of triumph for the CPM. It was the thirtieth year of their unbroken rule in West Bengal, and Nandigram was to be the Left Front’s laboratory for industrialising the countryside. “We wanted to make Nandigram the trump card for the entire state,” says Biman Basu, the CPM secretary. Instead, as the country watched, the government lost control of a violent exothermic reaction: its attempt to acquire 14,000 acres of fertile multicrop land to build an SEZ for petrochemical manufacturing backfired as a furious resistance erupted among local farmers and villagers, most of whom had been staunch CPM supporters for generations.

HELPED BY civic activists and opposition parties, these villagers formed the BUPC. In January 2007, they took a drastic step: they dug up their roads, collapsed their bridges, and seceded from the control of the West Bengal government. Those who persisted in their support of the CPM suddenly became fifth columnists — according to the party, 3,500 were chased out of their homes.

For the CPM, this was a terrible provocation. On March 14, 2007, the first attempt by party cadre and police to recapture the area ended with the massacre at Bhangaberia bridge. The BUPC managed to hold the fort until November, when battalions of heavily armed CPM cadre stormed Nandigram, in full view of national media and, as Radharani recalls, “turned it into a shamshaan.” The Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) was summoned, but blocked from entering Nandigram for three days as the cadre re-established control.

The decision to create an SEZ in Nandigram was retracted. “In the future, there will be no industrial investment in Nandigram,” said Ashok Guria, the CPM zonal secretary, “Nandigram can remain forever how it is.” The BUPC campaign had succeeded. But a third wave of violence in the lead-up to May 11’s panchayat elections makes it clear that the residents of Nandigram have yet to pay for their year of resistance. Political violence has become as much a part of the landscape here as fishtanks, betel plants and red flags.

the polls are announced in early April, and build in intensity. A week before the election, a woman named Malati Jana is stripped on the road and paraded through a CPM rally. The day we arrive, three men are admitted to Tamluk hospital with bullet wounds; in the Nandigram hospital, we meet two brothers of a Trinamool Congress (TMC) candidate who have been beaten with crowbars. Hundreds of people who have fled their homes are drifting around relief camps or larger towns. The scale of the violence is difficult to calculate: there are no reliable numbers of rapes, assaults or evictions.

This is the atmosphere in which the polls are expected to take place. Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya describes it as “sufficiently peaceful,” although an Election Commission observer calls it “grim and beyond normalcy.” Two days before polling day, opposition groups are in despair about getting the anti-CPM votes to the ballot. In villages like Garchakraberia, the opposition candidate can’t even enter the village. Then, on the evening of May 9, a piece of hopeful news begins hopping from cellphone to cellphone: Alok Raj has returned.

Alok Raj is, as the local press describes him, the Hero of Nandigram. A Deputy Inspector General of the CRPF, this is to be the second time it falls upon Raj to defend the peace in Nandigram. The first was after the November offensive in 2007, when he suppressed the retaliatory violence of the CPM’s motorcycle brigades and raided weapons caches.

Now Raj returns to Nandigram at the head of two extra companies of CRPF. When he arrives at 4pm on May 10, the tension hanging over the town unclenches, partially but instantly. BUPC evictees are escorted back to their homes and the borders of Nandigram are sealed against incursions. One of the first things he does is visit rape victims, including Radharani Ari and Malati Jana, in hospital. He gives his personal cellphone number freely to journalists, election officers and observers. Raj is everything the local police have failed to be: responsive, professional, efficient and non-partisan. Most Nandigram residents, irrespective of party allegiance, smile with admiration when they speak of him.

The conspicuous exceptions are the senior officers at the local police. A cloud of resentment hangs over the thana, where SP Panda and his officers sit, making sarcastic jokes about the CRPF. Raj is an interference in their own plans for the election.
IN 2007, NANDIGRAM was convulsed by a battle over land. In 2008, it has become something much more prosaic but also perverse: a battle over political prestige. The panchayat elections on May 11 are the first electoral test in Nandigram since the SEZ upheaval began. Through 18 months of conflict, both the Left Front and the opposition parties have claimed to be the true representatives of the people, condemning the other as illegitimate and rogue organisations. “After the election results are announced, the country will understand whether the people of Nandigram are supporting the Left Front or a bunch of hooligans,” Basu says, in the CPM headquarters in Kolkata. “The answer will be given.” The election results, apart from determining the calculus of local power for the next five years, will be interpreted as the first popular verdict on who was the real harmad.

BEFORE THE SEZ was announced, Nandigram was overwhelmingly a support base for the CPM. In the 2003 panchayat polls in Nandigram Block 1 — where the land notified for acquisition is located — the Left Front won seven of the 10 gram panchayats, 20 of the 23 panchayat samiti seats and both seats in the zilla parishad. The fact that the party is now so anxious is a sign of how much political support it squandered in the SEZ debacle. For the CPM, losing their majorities in the three-tier panchayat structure would be a humiliating sequel to losing control of the land the year before.

MAY 11. THE polls open at 7am. Despite reports of bomb explosions the previous night, polling proceeds smoothly. Four companies of CRPF, including one company of female jawans, a total force of 370, have fanned out across Nandigram. Alok Raj is coordinating 14 vehicle patrols; jawans are posted at each polling station. Around 11 am, when we meet Raj on field, everything is remarkably under control.

In the middle of our interview, Raj receives news that two CPM women have filed an FIR against him, claiming he molested them. Minutes later, his phone rings again. It is Lakshman Seth, CPM MP from Haldia, who holds powerful and dangerous sway over the area (it was Seth’s precipitate notice of land acquisition in January 2007 that triggered all the violence that followed.) Raj turns on the speakerphone, which is fortunate, because the conversation has to be heard to be believed.

Seth accuses Raj of patrolling the area without the local police — of being “completely beyond the control of the local administration.” Raj tells him he is accompanied by both the local police and a magistrate. Seth instructs him: “You must stay within the limits of your camp.” Raj: “Sir, you cannot confine me to the camp. You are saying this on record!” Seth: “I am telling you… this is the government’s policy!” Raj hangs up, incredulous. “Our primary job is to patrol the area,” he says, “There are definitely armed troublemakers in the area, but nobody will challenge us. I think that’s why the MP is trying to stop us.”

The FIR is the deepest cut. “This is a way of preventing me from doing my duty,” he says. “I went to the hospital yesterday and met many women who said they had been raped, but the police had refused to charge the accused. How many valid FIRs are being refused and how many false FIRs are being filed around here? The government needs to answer that.”

“On the one hand, they’re talking about more women in Parliament,” he continues, “On the other, women are being stripped and paraded in public in Nandigram. Take Naba Samanta — he has cases of rape and murder against him, but the police won’t touch him.” Samanta is one of the CPM’s strongest local leaders. Raj shakes his head, pauses, and directs the patrol to continue.

WHO IS BEHIND the harmad?
If the CPM is to be believed, it is the Trinamoolis — and the BUPC, by extension. By their account, the first atrocity in Nandigram was the persecution and eviction of CPM supporters during the 11 months that the BUPC blocked off the area. This permanently poisoned the environment inside the villages.

During these months, the BUPC allegedly collaborated with Maoist rebels, and that nexus persists. “After they were flushed out, an arms manufacturing centre was found in Nandigram,” Basu says. The BUPC today, he asserts, must be seen as a front for the Trinamool Congress, not a legitimate peoples’ movement. While the TMC itself was terrorising Left Front supporters, the BUPC was fabricating stories of violence by CPM cadre to defame the ruling party.

IT IS true — and damaging to the credibility of the BUPC — that the position of TMC members within it has risen steadily as the days of physical resistance have fallen behind and the days of electoral challenge have approached. Among BUPC members, the thinking about the TMC’s frontal role is that any party capable of unseating the CPM is worthy of support. “If they win, we’ll probably have to start opposing the TMC from the very next day,” says activist Debojit Dutt, “But it is the lesser of two evil".

It is also true that the BUPC retains a stock of arms, as their leader Subendhra Adhikari admits, but this was mostly eliminated after the November offensive, and Adhikari says all that remains is a small number of “household and locally-produced weapons.” Alok Raj says there has been absolutely no indication of Maoist activity since November. It is impossible to completely deny the CPM’s version of events, but any actual evidence for it is scarce.

“The CPM is always talking about 20 wounded here, 25 there,” says Sukumar Mitra, a Statesman correspondent, “But you don’t see any CPM supporters in hospitals. Everything from Kolkata private hospitals to local primary health centres is full of BUPC people.” Nor is it easy to find any CPM supporters stuck in camps for the displaced.

On the other hand, the use of force by CPM cadre is more than just evident: it is on proud public display. During the November offensive, the invading cadre had used assault rifles and landmines, while the CPM top brass cheered them on. The Chief Minister was blunt: “There was a violent takeover by dangerous forces in Nandigram,” he said, “They have now been paid back in the same coin.”

These cadre were never disarmed. Since November, they have launched unconcealed attacks on anything they desired: convoys of intellectuals visiting the area, Mamata Banerjee’s campaign convoy, the CRPF itself. Kolkata papers are full of photographs of masked men on motorcycle parades, growling through village squares, bristling with blades and rifle barrels.

The local police itself manifestly supports the CPM’s political supremacy. Almost every villager has a story about Debashish Chakraborty, the Officer in Charge (OC), and one of the prime accused in the CBI inquiry into the March 14, 2007 shooting. According to Rafiq Ul Islam, who was chased out of his home, the OC was present when Malati Jana was stripped — he was recording it on a handycam. Sheikh Fajilay, another evictee, puts it the most simply: “The harmad are supposed to be stopped by the police, but their leader is Chakraborty.”

AN HOUR AFTER Seth’s phone call to Raj, we are witness to a bizarre event in the village of Garupara, which is perfectly characteristic of the situation in Nandigram: micro-civil wars between villagers, crude scuffling between partisan police.

We follow a section of the CRPF, led by Hirasingh Thakur, to Garupara, where local TMC activists have complained that CPM men are obstructing roads and threatening voters. There we find a woman, so old her torso is lined like a leaf, stopped and stripped by goons. Thakur catches hold of a man leaving the area: he turns out to be the local CPM candidate, Snehanshu Das. Thakur takes him aside and requests him to help maintain peace. Das smirks, but nods, and leaves. “We could have arrested them and taken them to the thana,” Thakur says wearily, “but right in front of our eyes they would be fed rice and fish and sent home.”

It turns out, instead of maintaining peace, Das goes over to the CPM-dominated side of the village and announces that TMC activists had induced the CRPF to thrash him. Minutes later, people start pouring over from the CPM side. A small riot begins. A mob of around 80 villagers — old women with coconut-scrapers, young men with knives, little girls throwing chunks of cement — begin bludgeoning the TMC men. It looks like they will be lynched, when an order is given and the CRPF jawans lathi-charge. Having routed the mob, they jog through the village whacking at anyone still outdoors.

“They’re destroying their own villages,” Thakur says afterward, catching his breath, “Turning it into India and Pakistan.”

Only then does the local police arrive, led by the OC, Debashish Chakraborty. The government had promised he would be withdrawn from poll duty, yet here he is, in uniform and sunglasses, followed by two men with handycams who aren’t from the media. He crosses slowly to where the CRPF are gathered, and says, “Did you attack these people? Saale… give me your names.”

His voice is level, but so chilling some of the jawans back away. Their officers step up to him though, challenging his tone of voice. Chakraborty says there will be a complaint against the CRPF jawans. Suddenly, the two groups are literally at each others’ throats: Chakraborty and a CRPF officer grab each other by the neck. As lathis begin falling on both sides, the officers draw apart. The CRPF men are enraged, “You’re using gaalis? This is what you do with your power?” Chakraborty is dead calm. “I’ll show you my power,” he says.

Angry and bewildered, the CRPF skulk back to their post. Chakraborty holds court over a village in uproar about the CRPF’s “brutal attack”. It is impossible to tell whether any of the injuries on display are real. Snehanshu Das displays scrapes on his elbow and back. A woman, crying hysterically, describes how she was asleep when the CRPF burst into her house and began kicking her. By the time the media arrives, even the OC has a cut on his middle finger, which definitely wasn’t from the brawl.

WORD SPREADS from village to village, faster than we can walk: the story comes back to us in a myriad new shapes. The CRPF went through Garupara, we are told, asking about party affiliations, threatening villagers. The CRPF beat up the OC. The OC’s arm is broken. Once the televised media begins on the soundbites, it is unstoppable. Two days later, an inquiry is ordered into the CRPF attack.
BY MID-AFTERNOON, the CRPF control of the area is growing shaky. The polling station in Sonachura, a BUPC stronghold, is overrun by armed men who spend half an hour stuffing the ballot box. The presiding officer won’t say which party captured the booth. “You already know,” he says, smiling weakly. We step inside. Ballots lie all over the floor, torn, trampled, stamped over and over in favour of Left Front candidates. The men were too careless to even stuff them all into the box.

The Sonachura ballot is invalidated; repolling will happen there, along with two other rigged stations, on a date when Alok Raj will not be around. There are innumerable other small incidents. But still, polling day passes more peaceful than anyone had expected.

Irrespective of who wins the polls, but particularly if it is the CPM, there is reason to expect more violence after results are announced on May 21. The tussle for Nandigram is far from over. Over the last 30 years, the CPM has developed strong feelings about its entitlement to political power — which is something the BUPC and TMC’s campaign has severely challenged. They also have strong feelings about their entitlement to run elections on their own terms, which is something Alok Raj’s presence has challenged. “After a party has been in power for thirty years, it won’t step back,” says Dutt, “Not the CPM, not the TMC, not anybody. After 30 long years, it was inevitable this would happen — they’ve turned the Left into the spitting image of the Right.” Meanwhile the political violence is cutting trenches of hostility through Nandigram’s villages, planting the seeds of interminable violence deep in the fertile land. •

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