Thousands of police and government supporters occupied disputed farming land in Nandigram, 150 km (90 miles) south of Kolkata on 15 Martch, after at least 14 villagers were killed in protests against plans to build an industrial hub.
Clashes erupted on 14 March in West Bengal state after farmers, many armed with sickles, attacked government officers as they tried to enter the area earmarked for the industrial park, forcing police to open fire. More than 45 people were injured.
“We have absolute control in several of these trouble-torn villages and our forces are moving in to take further control,” Raj Kanojia, a police officer, said.
Police have taken control of at least five of the 12 troubled farming areas in Nandigram.
The unrest on 14 March was the worst violence yet over West Bengal’s plans to acquire land for a low-tax Special Economic Zone (SEZ) at Nandigram and set up a chemical industry hub with support of an Indonesian conglomerate, the Salim Group.
The unrest was also another blow for the national government’s policy to set up hundreds of SEZs across India to encourage industrial development.
Previous clashes over the proposed SEZ since January have killed at least seven, including one policeman, and wounded more than 100 and led to the government putting more than 230 SEZ proposals across India on hold.
The violence has also been an embarrassment for the ruling communist state government in West Bengal, which has annoyed its grassroots supporters by pressing for the SEZs as part of its economic reform program.
Supporters of the state government, many waving red flags, entered several villages with police. They blamed Maoist guerrillas for inciting the violence.
“Our party workers are inside Nandigram, many for the first time, but we are slowly gaining ground,” said Shyamal Sen, a local communist party leader.
Nandigram had been a no-go area for authorities for the last two months as villagers set up road blocks and destroyed some bridges to stop police from entering.
Journalists were stopped from entering the area but witnesses said most villages were quiet on Thursday.
Community leaders said the death toll could rise.
“Dozens of villagers are missing. We are trying to find out where they are. We think many have been killed,” said Abdus Samad, a local Muslim leader.
Nandigram is fast becoming a lightening 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 protesting farmers unwilling to give up their land. Among them is a high-profile $12 billion plant by South Korean steelmaker POSCO Co., which would be India’s largest foreign investment.
Last week at least 50 people were injured near the proposed POSCO site when villagers for and against the project clashed.
The unrest has proved a serious challenge for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, under pressure to tone down economic reforms amid signs of voter discontent with the ruling Congress party.
Local communist parties which shore up the ruling left-wing coalition in West Bengal said they would be demanding answers from the governing party.
Trinamul Congress, the main opposition party, called a strike for Friday to protest against the killings.
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.
BJP and other opposition members shouting slogans against the Left Front West Bengal Government raked up the issue again when the House reassembled at noon.
As Deputy Chairman K Rahman Khan called for tabling of papers, the entire opposition stood up to raise the issue. Sensing the mood, the Chair adjourned the House for the day.