By Nilotpal Basu
HISTORY is cruel; in its own way, it squares up the truth. Seven years back, a rural tract in West Bengal – Nandigram – shot to prominence. It resonated across the country. The cyber world took it beyond the national boundary and drew international attention. Political observers attributed electoral nemesis of the three decade electoral sway of the Left to the developments in Nandigram. Nandigram was seen as the ‘diabolical’ anti-peasant face of the Left in Bengal. And overall, it contributed to undermine the credibility of the Indian Left.
What was the background of the unfortunate developments that unfolded in Nandigram in the early days of 2007? The government of West Bengal in its attempt to industrialize the state had zeroed in on the Petroleum Investment Region scheme mooted by the central government; taking advantage of incentives of the scheme to facilitate the petroleum investment hub where Nandigram would be the core. The requirement for the scheme was a large amount of land. The locational advantage of Nandigram was its proximity to port city Haldia and existing oil refinery and petro-chemical complex. These existing facilities provided important infrastructure to locate the petroleum investment zone. That agricultural land in Nandigram suffered from salinity, forcing people to migrate for work was another factor which weighed in favour of developing industrial activities in the region.
However, the decision of Left Front government did not find major support from the people. A major factor which affected the mood of the people was the lack of communication. The comprehensive consultative exercise which ought to have helped galvanise popular opinion for industrial activity failed to fructify. And this communication deficit was compounded by a tendentious propaganda blitz by the opposition. A rainbow coalition emerged to oppose acquisition of land for the project.
Taking advantage of the uncertainty that emerged, the broad platform virtually took physical control over the proposed project land. The platform took to violence; digging up roads and blowing up bridges, the entire area went out of the writ of the state government. The law and order situation became captive to these forces. Several killings ensured that discourse on the industrialization agenda could not reach the people. Discussion and debate towards any informed conclusion was the casualty.
It was a catch-22 situation for the state government. Given the broad opposition to the project and the related issue of land acquisition, it became clear that without concurrence of people, it was impossible to go ahead with the project; notwithstanding its importance in the overall context of the industrialization agenda. Thus, between January and March 2007, atmosphere of uncertainty and anarchy prevailed in the area. In February itself, the state government and the chief minister announced that there will be no land acquisition against wishes of the people. But despite that, the opposition was unrelenting and carried on their violent and lawless ways making the area incommunicado to the state government. The state government was found helpless in ensuring the right of the entrapped citizens.
And, this was the backdrop of 14th March 2007. A police party which entered the area to restore communication to re-establish rule of law was confronted with. The consequent unfortunate police firing and related incidents resulted in the loss of 14 persons; widespread condemnation against ‘forcible acquisition’ followed.
Nandigram became the symbol around which opposition to the Left government galvanized. From Maoists on the Left to communal forces of all hues on the Right combined. With TMC spearheading the opposition, its supremo and present chief minister Mamata Banerjee shot into national fame. She became the icon of the anti-Left forces not only nationally but also internationally. Those who were pathologically opposed to the Left catapulted her to lead against hitherto electorally invincible Left; so much so, that she featured on the cover of Time magazine.
Ironically, the Left in India, which had been in the forefront of the struggle for agrarian reforms and land redistribution, was shown as having betrayed that legacy. The overall neo-liberal policy environment featuring large-scale takeover of agricultural land by corporate sharks came to be equated with what happened in Nandigram on the 14th of March.
Of course, there have been several reasons which led to the setback of the Left in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections and assembly elections in 2011; but Nandigram was widely seen as the trigger which set out the course for undermining the credibility of the Left.
Much as they attempted to explain their approach, the Left failed in getting its message across. Even before the Left Front government could order any independent probe into the firing on 14th March, the Kolkata High Court, at the insistence of the opposition, ordered a CBI probe.
LF GOVT VINDICATED
Finally, the propaganda blitz that led to institution of CBI probe has come full circle. On 18th December 2013, the CBI, after almost seven years of investigation, filed a chargesheet before the court. The findings could not be any greater indictment of the then opposition led by TMC and its mercurial leader Mamata Banerjee. The CBI findings completely vindicate what the Left government had contended at that point of time.
The CBI chargesheet reveals – “Investigation has disclosed that efforts were made by the district administration and the police officers to normalize the situation in Nandigram. Many meetings were organized between the administration, leaders of the opposition parties and BUPC”; Bhumi Uchhhed Pratirodh Committee (BUPC) being the umbrella organisation spearheaded by the TMC which led the agitation in Nandigram. But, the CBI has now opined that –“However, there was no visible improvement in the law and order situation which remained out of control for the District Civil and Police administration”.
Detailing about how bad the situation was between January and March, 2007, the chargesheet states -“During this period at least 56 FIRs were registered at Nandigram and Khejuri police stations relating to violence, arson, loot and murder etc. The period also witnessed death of 11 persons and injuries to at least 25 persons due to these clashes. A police Sub Inspector namely Sadhu Charan Chatterjee was kidnapped and killed by the mob, police jeeps were burnt and police weapons were looted. The cases registered could not be investigated by the local police as the local police were unable to enter into the villages during this period”.
The chargesheet comprehensively calls the bluff that the police entry was ‘clandestine’. The chargesheet categorically states that - “On 12.03.2007, the state home secretary briefed the press, in which he informed them about the proposed police action in Nandigram”. Subsequently, “it was decided that the police operation would be conducted on 14.03.2007 at three places in Nandigram”.
The firing was ‘after all attempts to disperse the crowd’ who blocked the police entry through requests over PA system, lathicharge, firing of tear gas and firing in the air ‘failed’.
The chargesheet also nails down the claim that there were hundreds of people killed, with gory charges of children and women being torn apart and their bodies smuggled out. The chargesheet categorically points out that ‘opposition consciously spread rumours’ and ‘organised armed men’ to take on police which led to the unfortunate firing. As if to add salt to injury, the CBI rejected the plea of the TMC that the political leadership of the Left was responsible. In fact, despite these findings, the current state government and the chief minister has refused to allow CBI to proceed against police and civil officials whom they found to violate some procedures, insisting that Left leadership must be investigated.
The CBI is no ‘holy cow’. Neither has it done anything spectacular to erase the impression that it is not insulated from political interference having earned the description of ‘caged parrot’. But, TMC and Ms Banerjee have forgotten that for almost six and a half years during which the CBI was carrying out its investigation, it was they who were in company with the ruling Congress – both in the state and the centre. The state government had every opportunity to inform CBI towards an ‘informed conclusion’ in course of last almost three years; not to forget that this CBI investigation on firing in Nandigram was essentially at their own behest.
Therefore, it is an irony that truth has finally come through the CBI chargesheet. Those who had chronicled contemporary events during that period will hopefully revisit conclusions that they had drawn on Nandigram – and, more importantly, on the Left and its intentions.