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Mainstream, Vol XLVI, No 17

Documenting Nandigram

Monday 14 April 2008, by D. Bandyopadhyay



1. Nandigram and Beyond by Gautam Ray (ed.); Sangehil, Kolkata; January 2008; pages 223; price: Rs 395.

2. Nandigram: What Really Happened: Report of the People’s Tribunal on Nandigram; Daanish Books, Delhi; December 2007; pages 102; price: with CD–Rs 225 and without CD–Rs 175.

Persons of my generation vividly remember even after the lapse of four decades that shocking black- and-white photograph of a small girl child, totally naked, running away from her blazing village My Lie in Vietnam. Her confused and distorted little face showed all the facets of horror, fright and hatred that a child’s mind could feel and comprehend. She was running away from her abode of safety in her village among her own near and dear ones who were all slaughtered by the US Marines who descended from the sky and started killing old men, women and children because their enemy, the Viet Cong, had disappeared from the village before they landed. It shocked and numbed the world as people saw through this photograph the collapse of the Christian civilisation of the West. Even the warmongers among the US establishment were rattled. The Platoon Commander was subsequently cashiered and served a short penal servitude. But that was war. Even in war an officer suffered punishment, however light it might be, for transgressing the Rules of War for killing unarmed non-combatant civilians.

In Nandigram there was no war. It was not even a civil strife in the strict sense of the term. It was a popular upsurge of emotion by the party (CPI-M) loyalists when they found that their trust in the party was flagrantly betrayed. There was no suspension of civil laws. There was no collapse of the civil administration. Gram Panchayat Offices functioned normally. The Block Development Officer and the Police Stations were neither mobbed nor besieged. A normal situation prevailed there. Schools and colleges in Nandigram operated as usual. There was no increase in the rate of crimes. In fact, during the “disturbed” period normal crimes got reduced. Of course, this was offset by the political crimes committed by the CPI-M goons whom the police refused to recognise and record. Admission and discharge of inpatients in the local government hospital went on as usual. There was business as usual in Nandigram between January 7 and March 14, 2007, and between end of March and November 12, 2007, when the process of “reconquest” of Nandigram by the CPI-M goons was completed excepting continuous firing and bombing from across the Talpati canal from Khejuri by the CPI-M cadres.

Heinous crimes of all types mentioned in the Indian Penal Code were committed by the party cadres and the uniformed police; these constituted the darkest chapter so far in the history of the civil administration of West Bengal under the 30-year-old CPI-M rule. Though far too near to the events in the sequence of time, they deserve recording objectively and analysed theoretically as raw materials for future historians. Both these volumes Nandigram and Beyond and Nandigram: What Really Happened fulfil that objective superbly.

NANDIGRAM AND BEYOND is a collection of articles by different perceptive writers drawn mainly from the fields of academia, journalism and social activism with an excellent foreword by the editor, Gautam Ray, a journalist of high repute. While discussing the role of the only recognised Opposition party, the Trinamul Congress (TMC), the editor comments:

...they were also trying to appropriate this movement, or failing which, to sabotage it. The peasant organisers, mostly apolitical elements, were unable to withstand the tricks, machinations and intrigues of seasoned politicians.

He goes on to say:

the November onslaught of the CPI-M’s armed marauders and the abject surrender of the TMC-led leadership of the anti-eviction movement proved this.

One begs to differ from this harsh judgement of the events at Nandigram on November 10-12, 2007. On November 10, 2007 the CPI-M cadres fired indiscriminately on two totally unarmed processions of protestors killing a number of them and more cruelly and savagely taking about a thousand men, women and children as hostages. On November 11, 2007, the two-pronged marches for the reconquest of Nandigram started with these “captured” unarmed men, women and children put in the vanguard as human shields behind whom the CPI-M armed marauders moved in followed distantly by the police. Armed resistance by the BUPC would have resulted in killing their own relations and friends. They gave up. This was certainly not an “abject surrender” on the ground of cowardice or money. In another place the editor wrote:

Singur and Nandigram in spite of their defeats have, however, become symbols of and inspiration for resistance.

While agreeing with the second half of the sentence, one would differ with editor’s description of the outcome of the resistance both in Singur and Nandigram as “defeat”. With the term “defeat” comes the term “surrender”. Did the resisters and dissenters of these two places “surrender” accepting the unconditional hegemony of the party? They did not. They were defiant then. And remain audaciously rebellious even now. And that’s what distinguishes these two struggles from various other earlier ones. Technically, the CPI-M and its government suffered a serious defeat in Nandigram as they had to abandon the SEZ and chemical hub projects there. In Singur nearly 34 per cent of the landowners have so far refused to accept compensation. They are starving, yet they are audaciously challenging the state power setting up a rare example of daring challenge. They may die. That would be a tremendous moral victory over the brute state power. To be fair, the editor does mention: “... (they) have ... become symbols of and inspirations for resistance”.
Incidentally, only 28.1 per cent of landowners gave up land willingly as stated in an affidavit before the High Court in response to the present reviewer’s PIL there.

There are 11 other articles written by authors among whom are Sumit and Tanika Sarkar, Bolan Gangopadhyay, Ratan Khasnobis, Praful Bidwai, Abhee Datta-Mazumdar. Other contributors are also equally notable in their respective areas of activity.

The first sentence of “A Place called Nandigram” by Sumit and Tanika Sarkar pithily sums up the CPI-M led development process in West Bengal. They observe:

Nandigram tells us a story about how neo-liberalism gets to be installed; that is, only and always through acts of extreme coercion and naked suspension of
democratic rights and norms. (p. 21)

They, however, observe: “It is also the story about how to resist it.” (p. 21) This is an excellent piece of theoretical analysis buttressed by the ugly ground realities of Nandigram. It is a superb blend of theory and fact.

Bolan Gangopadhyay’s “A Tradition of Resistance” made me nostalgic. Her portrayal of Bhupal Panda, a forgotten hero of the Tebhaga movement in Medinipur, whom I used to know quite well as a young SDO of Tamluk in the late fifties of the last century, is vivid and lifelike. He was then an MLA. He used to travel by bicycle and public bus. It was an episode in the interior area of Nandigram, when there was hardly any communication facility, that brought a furious outburst of anger of the Congress bosses against me. I felt forlorn. From nowhere came Bhupal Panda and stridently supported my stand against the orchestrated cacophony of the ruling Congress bosses. As a Communist he had no compunction to defend a civil servant publicly. Events of Nandigram 2007-08 only indicate that it is reliving its own history of resistance to an immoral autocratic rule. It resisted before. It is resisting now. It will resist in future.

In “Nandigram: Victory for Sabalterns” Dayabati Roy contrasted the character of the movements in Singur and Nandigram. Dayabati Ray produced a CD (documentary) at the early stages of the movement at Singur. Regarding Singur she observes:

Being agriculturally prosperous, even small farmers in Singur were quite solvent and a section of them could not keep their faith in the victory of the movement in the face of State repression. ... CPI-M party had been able to maintain links with such vacillating elements within the movement, pursued them and coaxed and sometimes compelled them to part with their land. ... In Nandigram, on the contrary, the peasants were able to effectively demobilise the CPI-M marching in the whole area from day one of the movement... Thus the consent manufacturing process could not at all take off in the Nandigram area.

Here the subaltern people could disarm their enemy in the beginning itself and could maintain the solidarity of the village community throughout the movement. (p. 83)

If the moral of this statement is that since subalterns have nothing much to lose, hence they could be more fierce fighters, there could be an alternative opinion also that those who have a lot to lose, might organise equally ferocious resistance. What is really heartening is that it opens up a highly stimulating intellectual debate.

For a pedantic and scholastic representation of the issues involved in Nandigram one has to turn to Ratan Khasnobis’ “Land Acquisition, Corporate Capital and Social Justices”. It is a bit difficult to assess where the author stands in this debate on the development paradigm. If the compensation issue could be resolved to the satisfaction of all the losers of land and livelihood, would the discourse be over? One doubts. Anyway the author has made a perceptive observation:

Merrill Lynch forecasts that the Indian reality sector will grow from (US) $ 12 billion in 2005 to (US) $ 90 billion by 2015. India is the most exciting real estate market in Asia. ... It is one of the last major countries in Asia with an improving market. (p. 99)

Here lies the meat. Grab land now when the going is good. Hence this craze for SEZ and corporate decisions to control land through the expropriatory compensation rates of LA Act 1894 through the doormat governments like that of the CPI-M in West Bengal. One doubts whether the author would agree with this stand.

Praful Bidwai and Pradip Datta’s two articles on the nuclear energy provide a store house of information and point to the dangers of nuclear energy production. Lay readers can get informed about the flip side of the nuclear energy which the governments in India deliberately hide. That the Haripur nuclear energy plant is basically anti-people has been forcefully argued by Praful Bidwai.

Dirty chemical industries have to be shifted from the environmentally clean North. So where would they go? Naturally the poor South provides the ready alternative sites. Giving the example of human disaster of the chemical capital of Brazil, Cubato, Abhee Datta-Mazumdar strongly argues against setting up of chemical hubs in the State. The chemical industry in the world is controlled by half-a- dozen or so giant corporate bodies like Du Point, Dow, Monsanto, Shell Mitsubishi and the like.

These corporations are least concerned about the protection of environment or public health. They exert tremendous pressure on the government and policy, makers to avoid all responsibilities and cut heavily on the safety and security budget. (p. 179)

With the Bhopal gas tragedy, where the mighty Indian state including its “independent” judiciary buckled in so easily, fresh in our mind, one should be wary about these toxic and hazardous industries which may cause far-reaching and inter-generational genetic problems.

In all, this book provides a formidable and delectable fare of intellectual discourse arguing strongly against neo-liberal economic paradigm of development so fondly and eagerly advocated by a group of imposters and tavern-knifers who masquerade as the Communist Party of India-Marxist. It is an eye- opener. For any socially conscious individual or group it should be compulsory reading. Whether one agrees or disagrees, one has to read it to widen one’s horizon of knowledge and understanding of the contemporary events in West Bengal and the grotesque ideology of the ruling establishment.

ONE of the enduring and endearing beneficial side effects of the Singur-Nandigram struggle has been the burgeoning civil society activities. All of a sudden from a state of almost utter hibernation, it has become animated, alive and vibrant. Apart from protest marches, meetings, street dramas, “dharnas” and the like it revived the concept of People’s Tribunals where former Justices of the High Courts and/or Supreme Court and eminent women and men of public life, known for their independence and probity, heard the victims, visited scenes of occurrence and came to conclusions strictly following the laws of natural justice and settled judicial procedure. One such People’s Tribunal consisting of:

1. Justice S.N. Bhargava, Retired Chief Justice of Sikkim High Court,

2. Prabhash Joshi, Founder Editor, Jan Satta,

3. Lalita Ramdas, Social Activist,

4. John Dayal, Journalist and Human Right Activist, and

5. Dr J. Jyotirmay Samajdar, Psychiatrist

held public hearings at Gokulnagar and Sonachura in Nandigram, East Medinipur on May 26 and 27, 2007 and at the University Institute Library Hall on May 20, 2007. Their findings have come out in a book form entitled Nandigram, What Really Happened—Report of the People’s Tribunal on Nandigram.

Of the many publications on the massacre at Nandigram, this Report is the most comprehensive and absolutely factual giving chronology of events right up to the “reconquest” of Nandigram by the CPI-M cadres in November, 2007.

In prosaic and judicial language it portrays the chilling horror that the victims of murder and mayhem suffered day after day, night after night, month after month for the whole year of 2007 from January 3 to November 12-14 (2007). The Report is an example of strict professionalism blended with vividness of account. It is a splendid piece of report- writing. According to this Report, on March 14, 2007, when the police operations took place, the following senior police officers were present on the spot:

1. Inspector General of Police Western Range—Arun Gupta,

2. Deputy Inspector General of Police—N. Ramesh Babu,

3. Superintendent of Police East Medinipore—Anil Srinivasan,

4. Officer-in-Charge Khejuri Police Station—Amit Hati,

5. Subdivisional Police Officer Haldia—Swapan Sinha.

In its judgement, dated November 16, 2007 the Division Bench of the Calcutta High Court (S.S. Nijjar CJ and Pinaki Chandra Bose, J) held, inter alia, that

1. The action of the police department to open fire at Nandigram on 14-03-2007 was wholly unconstitutional and cannot be justified under any provision of law.
…. ….

5. The action of the police cannot be protested or justified on the ground of sovereign immunity.

6. The action of the police cannot be justified even under the provisions of Criminal Procedure Code, the Police Act, 1861 or The Police Regulations, 1943.

According to this judgement of the Hon’ble Calcutta High Court all the five aforementioned police officers stand indicted for illegal action for which they are liable for both departmental disciplinary procedures and criminal legal actions which if done seriously might result in their dismissal from service and penal servitude.

In the My Lie incident in Vietnam, the young Platoon Commander, equivalent to the rank of a Subdivisional Police Officer in our set-up, lost his job and served a jail term for violating the Rules of the War of not to kill unarmed non-combatant civilians. It happened during a war.

In Buddha’s My Lie, the diktats of the local CPI-M party bosses supersede the Constitution and the law. Hence, having obeyed illegal orders of the party bosses these guilty police officers could care a tuppence for the law and the Constitution of India to which they had sworn allegiance once upon a time. Nothing happened to them and to many more other criminals. In Buddha’s State of My Lie the citizenry is divided into two groups—“We” and “They”. Those who belong to “We” are above the Constitution and the law. Hence notwithstanding the collapse of the Constitution and the law, life goes on merrily for those who are “We”. And “They” do not matter. The Report clearly brings out the fact that the current Government in West Bengal is a government of the rogues, by the rogues and for the rogues. If the law really had long arms, as is often said, it could only be hoped that these criminals would be brought to justice in future.

The Nandigram Report is written in prose which is lean and robust. Its pace would do credit to any Formula One Ferari or Porsche. It is an invaluable source material of history. All future historians studying the thirty-year malgovernance of the CPI-M in West Bengal would have to depend on it for facts and contemporary documents. All kudos to the organisers and the members of this People’s Tribunal on Nandigram.

The reviewer was the Secretary to the Government of India, Ministries of Finance (Revenue) and Rural Development, and the Executive Director, Asian Development Bank, Manila. He also served in the West Bengal administration for many years and was the architect of ‘Operation Barga’ of the LF Government in its early stages.

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