Spartacist Canada No. 159 (Winter 2008/2009)]
In late December public notice was given that 25,000 acres of farmland in the Nandigram area of West Bengal was to be forcibly appropriated by a development authority linked to the state, which has been ruled for the past three decades by the Stalinist Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI(M)), to allow an Indonesian firm to build a huge chemical manufacturing center there (along with hotels, a golf course, etc.). The local residents immediately began to organize to defend their homes and livelihood. On the morning of March 14, several thousand of them gathered in protest of the seizure and were met by half as many police and CPI(M) cadre disguised as police, whose planned attack on the unarmed crowd—with women and children stationed at the front precisely to deter such an act—is described in the report excerpted below. The government admits to killing fourteen people and injuring over 200 more; residents and others put the actual death toll at over 100.
Report of Investigation into Nandigram Mass Killings by Association for Protection of Democratic Rights (APDR) and Paschim Banga Khet Majoor Samity (PBKMS)
"People were aware that there would be an attempt by the police and party goons to re-enter the area as a first step towards taking over their land. They decided to offer peaceful resistance by organising a Gouranga Puja [Hindu worship ceremony] (incidentally Gouranga is the God believed to be protector of the people nearby). They also planned a Koran recitation ceremony. Once this programme was known, people flocked to the spots where the Puja and Koran recitals were being held. At Bhangabera the Puja was in a trench that had been cut in the road earlier. About 5,000-6,000 people were present, of which 3000 were women and about 400-500 were children. The people were unarmed as they were in religious ceremonies. The women and children decided to stand in front as the people assumed that the police would not be that much violent with women and children.
"A large police force with firearms and tear gas arrived in vehicles and buses on the Khejuri side of the Talpatti Khal in the morning. They were accompanied by many armed CPM goons. They were also carrying truckloads of road repair equipments and materials. At Bhangabera Bridge, they first filled up a large trench near the bridge. None opposed this. They then began advancing across the bridge. There seems to have been no prior warning. It eas reported that, Anup Mondal of the CPM was using a hand mike, but most barring a few nearby heard nothing and were not forewarned about the police action. Without any proper warning the police-CPI(M) combine began throwing bombs and tear gas shells. This blinded the crowd and created confusion and panic. At this juncture, the the police-CPI(M) combine began firing from various firearms and advancing further while firing. Operations, including the firing and the filling up of the trench seemed to have been planned earlier. While the firing continued for about 15 minutes, other forms of violence followed for the next hour and a half or so.
"There are many complaints of horrific and deliberate acts of violence during this phase and afterwards. [...] Women were taken away and raped. Women who tried to hide or wash their burning eyes in ponds were forced to come out and then beaten up again. Houses and shops were looted. Instead of using minimum force necessary to disperse the unarmed people gathered there, maximum possible force appear to have been applied to instil fear and terror in people, to break their morale and teach them a lesson. The large presence of armed CPI(M) men, many also in police fatigue injected the element of vengeance and revenge in the operation.
"According to all the 200 or more villagers we met and the patients admitted in Tamluk Hospital and Nandigram Hospital, more than 100 persons have died in the firing. They alleged that most of the bodies were taken away by the Police-CPI (M) combine by truck towards Khejuri or buried under the newly repaired road at Bhangabera."
See also, on CPI(M) strategy:
Police and Cadres Kill 125 in Nandigram Massacre (appeal by Sanjay Sanjvai, an activist for the National Alliance of People's movements, at Kafila.org, March 15, 2007)
"The plan to push in police into the trouble-torn and tense area was chalked out by the CPI(M) top brass last Saturday. They were under pressure from the East Midnapur unit of the party led by MP Lakshman Seth who felt that the CPI(M) would permanently lose ground in the area unless barricades were removed and ‘normalcy’ was restored in Nandigram. A large section of the CPI(M) secretariat was also of the same view and felt that the manner villagers were keeping the administration paralyzed for over two months was creating a bad precedent.
"According to the strategy, the police was asked to remove resistance, enter the villages and ‘restore law of the land’. They were to be followed by CPI(M) activists, who would 'reinstall civil society' in Nandigram."
And see, on events leading up to the massacre:
A Bridge Too Far by Satya Sagar (Combat Law, May-June 2007):
"In Singur [where despite resistance local people had their land seized to set up an SEZ for Tata Motors (later abandoned by the company); see anti-caste: SINGUR, WEST BENGAL: CPI(M) CADRES RAPED AND KILLED FOR TATA (November 12, 2007)] while a section of absentee landowners had agreed to sell their land to the state, a bulk of farmers and sharecroppers in the area refused to acquiesce. In response, the state government occupied and fenced the Singur land, imposing section 144 of the Indian penal code to prohibit public protests—in other words using brute force to oust farmers from their own land.
"So when towards the end of 2006 state ministers and CPI(M) leaders started talking publicly of setting up a huge chemical hub in Nandigram under the Salim group, an Indonesian multinational, the local folk here started getting agitated.
"At a public meeting in Nandigram market on December 29, 2006, the CPI(M) member of Parliament, Lakshman Seth, urged farmers to pave the way for development and industrialisation in Nandigram by giving up their lands in return for monetary compensation. Seth, who is also the chairman of the Haldia Development Authority, in his speech, named the villages that would have to make way for the chemical hub. The total area to be acquired was a whopping 14,500 acres to set up the SEZ that would include a mega chemical and petrochemical hub and a shipyard.
"Though, according to CPI(M) leaders, no final decision has yet been taken about the exact location of the projects, an informal notice for public information regarding likely location of this project was circulated by the Haldia Development Authority to all blocks and Gram Panchayat offices of the area.
"This announcement, however, was enough to aggravate tension in the area as resentment grew among villagers at not being consulted on the issue and at the thought of being kicked out of their ancestral lands. 'If we leave our land we will become beggars in the cities,' says Jayanti, another resident of Sonchura, explaining the strong sentiments behind the local resistance.
"On January 3, 2007, villagers clashed with a police patrol that was surveying the Nandigram area. According to the CPI(M), the police had to be called in after members of the opposition Trinamool Congress ransacked the office of the local panchayat pradhan. Four people were injured in the police lathicharge and gunfire that ensued while one police jeep was set on fire by an angry mob.
"On January 5, 2007, several opposition party groups that had already been working in the area—ranging from the Trinamool Congress to the Socialist Unity Centre of India and the Santosh Rana faction of the CPI(Marxist-Leninist Liberation) decided to join hands to form the Bhumi Uchchhed Protirodh Committee (BUPC) loosely translated as ‘committee for resistance to eviction from homeland’.
"According to locals, the response to this political consolidation of opposition forces got a swift response from the ruling CPI(M). In the early morning on January 7, villagers alleged, CPI(M) cadres, armed with sticks, knives and guns attacked Nandigram, crossing the Bangabhera bridge from Khejuri. The official CPI(M) version is that it is the BUPC members who started the fight by attacking their people camped in Khejuri.
"Whoever started the fight, in the process three people from Nandigram—Bharat Mandal, Shekh Salim and Biswajit Maiti (just 12 years old)—died of bullet injuries. In retaliation, enraged villagers lynched Shankar Samanta, a local landlord accused of giving shelter to what they called CPI(M) goons and also taking part in the firings after which they ransacked and burnt down his palatial house close to the bridge.
"It was following this incident that the locals decided to dig a trench on the road connecting the Bangabhera bridge to Nandigram and block the road further with tree-trunks, boulders and bricks.
"In the weeks and months after the violence of early January, the Bangabhera bridge and adjoining areas became a war zone with almost daily attacks by CPI(M) cadre who had gathered in Khejuri, villagers said. These cadres included some of those who had left the Nandigram area, along with their families, due to threats from those opposed to the acquisition of land for the chemical hub project.
"In response, Nandigram villagers blockaded all entry points into their area making it a no-go zone for the state officials, particularly police. There are reports that some arms and ammunition also found its way into the hands of locals to be used against what has been termed as the superior firepower of the CPI(M) cadre, who, after all, also had the backing of state authorities."
And see also:
Nandigram, an atrocity on dalits by Tanveer Kazi, national secretary of the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights and member of a fact-finding team in Nandigram on March 16-17 and later from April 20-25 (India Today, May 5, 2007):
"It is clear that the majority of victims did come from the Scheduled Castes – not surprising as in the area and most parts of India the most economically vulnerable are the dalits. Lip service is all that these vulnerable communities receive in place of rehabilitation and compensation, and the same has happened in the case of land seizures too. As villager Santosh Patro reiterated to our team of the former residents of Haldia '...all those who left their land are selling cucumber and cleaning shit.'
"The decision to act with such force and brutality must be seen as pre-meditated and could also be related to caste or the perceived status or lack of, of those living in the area. Effectively the local residents were claiming political autonomy of the area, ridding it of party cadres and asserting themselves. This can be seen to reflect a deeper tension that the SEZ issue finally inflamed. The response was a decidedly brutal one, in order to put residents 'back in their place'. Terror is one of the most effective tools to manufacture submission and in this instance has already been effective; the mere sight of police was enough to disperse a crowd that had gathered after the discovery of charred remains in the area."
Muslims are also heavily represented among the peasants of Nandigram. As noted in the report quoted above, the mass protest that came under attack, though religiously oriented, was explicitly intercommunal (featuring both puja and recital of the Koran).