Ranichowk, West Bengal: A patrol of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), led by an armoured truck, makes its way down the road leading to this village, approximately 10km west of Nandigram. No sooner has the small convoy of law enforcers disappeared around a bend than a band of motorcyclists turns up. Fluttering on the handlebars of the Hero Hondas and Bajaj Boxers is the flag of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which is the majority party in the state’s ruling government.
“Which channel are you from?” demands the leader of the five-motorcycle pack, while the rest rev their engines. Convinced that we’re not members of the offending channel they want to hound out, Mir Aksar Ali, as the swarthy man identifies himself, points to a village in the distance.
“That is Satengabari,” he says. “Please go and see for yourself what the Trinamool-Bhumi Uchched Pratirodh Committee (BUPC) have done.”
BUPC is a group set up to oppose the forced acquisition of land by the West Bengal government for putting up industry. It is backed by political leader Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress.
Women CPI-M supporters take out a peace procession near Giribazar village (Photo by Ayan Laha/Mint)
But the battle to hold on to their land, it seemed, had made hundreds of those very villagers landless.
Satengabari village, claims Aksar Ali, was “liberated” by what he describes as party action after being in the hands of the Trinamool and BUPC for almost six months. But the hotly fought-over prize hardly seems in a state to be jubilant about. Not a house in the village of about 800 inhabitants is intact. Some have simply been torched while others have been scooped out and smaller huts made of clay and wattle have been knocked over.
“The Trinamool-BUPC ruffians burnt our houses while retreating in the face of CPM action,” says Mir Mahbood Ali, who says he came back with his family to Satengabari after spending the last few months in a CPM-organized relief camp in Khejuri. The plight of being made landless and moving in and out of refugee camps has made him bitter.
“We too burnt some Trinamool supporters’ houses when we recaptured our village,” he admits. He isn’t the only one who is candid about the violence he and other villagers have inflicted.
“Our boys were charged up and this was inevitable,” says Obaidullah, another villager who teaches at a khariji (theological) madrassa nearby.
According to Obaidullah, the Trinamool-BUPC combine had destroyed the peace of the village and joined hands with Maoists. “They had guns in bunkers and placed mines, one of which was detonated by the police and CRPF yesterday,” he says, pointing to a crater and a tree scarred by shrapnel.
A deserted stretch of road near Ranichowk village (Photo by Ayan Laha/Mint)
The CRPF was deployed to keep the peace in the area after the state police failed to impose order, which many villagers said was at the directive of the state government.
The news is no different in other villages including Takapura, Maheshpur, Amgachhia, Giribazar and Keyakhali, all under the control of armed members of the CPM’s Red Brigade.
The villages are deserted and small shops remain shut, some with blackened shutters and smashed tiles. But all have the red flag claiming victory and possession.
“We were Trinamool, until they came,” says Tusi Patra, the wife of a young farmhand in Takapura, when asked about her political affiliation. The entire village seems deserted. Her mother-in-law appears and chaperones her away. “My husband went away to Siliguri to save his life,” says Tusi as she is led away.
A burnt bridge leading to Ranichowk village (Photo by Ayan Laha/Mint)
Patra’s husband isn’t the only able-bodied man to flee the area. Hundreds, if not thousands of Trinamool-BUPC supporters have taken refuge in faraway districts such as North and South 24 Parganas, Hooghly, Burdwan, Murshidabad, Dinajpur and Jalpaiguri.
“We have allowed women and children to stay back provided they fly our flag from atop their houses and switch loyalty to us,” says Nakul Giri, a CPM supporter who arrives on the scene. “Among the menfolk, those who didn’t take up arms will be allowed in gradually.”
Back in Nandigram town, at the high school where approximately 3,000 Trinamool-BUPC supporters have taken refuge after being chased out of their homes in the recent violence, the mood is ugly. Survivors are too scared to even venture out of the gate, lest they be attacked by CPM henchmen.
“Four people went out yesterday,” says Abu Motaleb Ali, who says he is a BUPC functionary. “Only two came back.” The people swarming around Motaleb say that they are sure the two who did not make it back are being held captive by the CPM. “They know who belongs to which family and are selectively capturing certain members to force the others out,” Motaleb says.
A house in Satengabari village demolished and set on fire (Photo by Ayan Laha/Mint)
According to him, even the actual death toll is much higher. “I and a lot of people here saw the CPM people cart away bodies by the van-load across Talpatti canal and cremate them there,” claims Motaleb.
The camp at the high school is guarded by four men from the Eastern Frontier Rifles, a state government paramilitary force. The men, aging Gorkhas from Darjeeling, huddle under a small shed to keep out of the incessant drizzle.
The villages, many of which do not have motorable roads, have seen only the occasional foot patrol. “We can see the headlights of the CRPF vehicles on the road at night,” says a bearded man in Giribazar village, who mutters under his breath that he has switched loyalties to the CPM last week while not wanting to be named.
In the camp, Motaleb Ali is interrupted by Nandalal Guria, whose bandaged feet, he says, are from running through the fields in the pitch darkness when his village was attacked.
“My father Chand Hari and my brother are still being held in Satengabari by the people you mentioned,” says Guria.“My brother’s arm has been wrenched out of his shoulder but the harmad (as the CPM attackers are known locally) are not letting him go to hospital.”
Guria, who needs medical attention himself, breaks down while describing the fate of his prisoner brother.
“Go to Tamluk subdivisional hospital and see the condition of Akhreja Bibi,” says Marjina Bibi, another inmate, also from Satengabari.
An elderly woman outside her devastated house in Satengabari village (Photo by Ayan Laha/Mint)
According to the emaciated mother of two, Akhreja and her two daughters were raped after they were taken way when the peace procession they were participating in came under fire last week.
“Obaidullah, Aksar and Mahbood are all harmad,” says Shambhu Das, a Trinamool member from Satengabari, who denies that the village was torched by retreating Trinamool-BUPC fighters. “Why would we torch our own houses?” he counters.
According to Motaleb, the CPM attackers have not only recaptured their own houses but also taken possession of those vacated by fleeing Trinamul-BUPC members. “They have brought in outsiders to serve as squatters and make us homeless,” says the young man.
Almost as if to bear out Motaleb’s words, three men in track suits and sneakers suddenly appear on the road leading to the Tekhali bridge, the de facto frontier during the skirmishes. “We came to do our party’s bidding and now that our mission is accomplished, we are taking a stroll,” said one of the trio, in a pronounced Bihari accent.
Back in Satengabari, Mahbood Ali and his men fan out to vantage points in the paddy fields. In a sudden show of camaraderie, the skull-cap wearing Mahbood offers to escort us to our car. Perhaps he wants to be sure that the pesky journalists have left the area, which he and his men have started securing.