NANDIGRAM (West Bengal): Baton-wielding police fired tear gas and beat dozens of villagers on 15 March who were protesting the killing of at least 14 people in a dispute over plans to set up an industrial hub on farmland.
The Calcutta High Court ordered a CBI probe into the police firing.
West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, who was planning a judicial inquiry, accepted the court’s order but justified his government’s decision to send police into Nandigram to restore order there.
In the assembly, where he faced loud protests, he said: “We want the CBI to inquire and find out whether the administration was wrong or right.”
Meanwhile, Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee on 15 March returned to Kolkata without entering villages in Nandigram where violent clashes left 14 dead after being briefly treated at a local hospital when she complained of chest pain.
Banerjee, who could not enter the troubled areas on 14 March night as her convoy ran into road blocks set up by CPI-M activists, reached Nandigram Sadar Hospital on 15 March morning to meet some of those injured in violence.
But she complained of chest pain and had to be admitted to the hospital, where she was administered oxygen and saline.
The killings were the worst violence yet over communist-run West Bengal’s plans to acquire land for a low-tax Special Economic Zone (SEZ) at Nandigram, a dispute that has also undermined the national government’s economic reform plans.
At least 2,000 protesters, most of them farmers and opposition activists, set fire to a government building in Nandigram, witnesses and police said.
Apparently in retaliation, police fired tear gas near a hospital emergency ward, sending hundreds of villagers, who had assembled at the hospital to look for missing relatives from the previous day, scurrying for cover.
Villagers jumped into ponds and ran into paddy fields as some shouted: “They will kill us again. Run for your life, brothers.”
Elsewhere, women and children wailed as they sat along narrow mud roads, their homes ransacked, reportedly by communist supporters.
The clashes erupted a day after police fired on farmers who had attacked officers as they tried to enter an area earmarked for a chemical industry hub with investment from an Indonesian conglomerate, the Salim Group.
Police said they have taken control of at least five of the 12 troubled farming areas in Nandigram, 150 km southwest of Kolkata. But protests have spread.
In Kolkata, students boycotted classes, trains were stopped by demonstrators outside the city and roads were blocked.
Meanwhile, uproar over killing of farmers stalled proceedings in the Rajya Sabha leading to its adjournment on 15 March. Right from the word go, angry opposition members did not allow the House to run forcing its first adjournment for an hour within minutes of its assembling.
REFORMS IN TROUBLE
Previous clashes over the proposed SEZ since January have killed at least seven people and led to the government putting more than 230 SEZ proposals across India on hold.
Nandigram had been a no-go area for authorities for the past two months as villagers set up road blocks to stop police entering.
The violence has been an embarrassment for the communists in West Bengal, who have annoyed grassroots supporters by pressing for SEZs as part of their reform programme.
The unrest has also proved a serious challenge for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who is under pressure to tone down reforms after signs of voter discontent with the ruling Congress party.
Supporters of the state government, many waving red flags, entered several villages in Nandigram on 15 March with police. They blamed Maoist guerrillas for inciting the violence.
Nandigram is fast becoming a lightning rod for criticism of the government’s economic reforms, with some evidence that it has emboldened other protesters in India.
Major industrial projects in the neighbouring state of Orissa have also been stalled by farmers unwilling to give up land. Among them is a high-profile $12 billion plant by South Korean steelmaker POSCO Co. Ltd., which would be India’s largest foreign investment.
Last week at least 50 people were injured near the proposed POSCO site during clashes.
Trinamul Congress, the main opposition party in West Bengal, called a strike for on 16 March to protest against the killings.
For many it was all too late as rumours added to the fear and uncertainty.
“I’m told many children were slaughtered and their bodies dumped into the river,” said a sobbing Kavita Das Adhikari, 30, who was homeless and was trying to find her brother-in-law.
LEFT FRONT IN DEEP CRISIS, SAYS BARDHAN
The “unprecedented” police firing in Nandigram has created a deep crisis within West Bengal’s ruling Left Front, CPI general secretary A B Bardhan said.
Describing police action as the “most tragic and unprecedented” incident during the 30-year rule of the Left Front in the state, Bardhan, who rushed here to attend CPI’s state secretariat meeting, said there should be transparency and consultations with partners in the coalition on government action.
The “brutal” police action was unusual and unacceptable. It was a “unilateral” step taken in a hurried manner, he said.
The anguish expressed by Governor Gopalkrishna Gandhi had come at an appropriate time, he said.
The resistance at Nandigram, Bardhan said, was a result of the people’s protest against the attempt by the state government to set up a chemical hub there.
He said that, in a way, the chemical industry was being exported from developed countries like Japan and Germany to third world nations. “Why should they pollute our state?” he asked.
“Although we are working within a bourgeois set-up, but as leftists we should put up some model for others,” he said.