Though Nandigram had been seething with anger for the last quite a few months over the establishment of an SEZ there, real trouble started with a clash between police, ruling party members and villagers there, sparking violence and leaving more than 14 people dead and many more injured.
At the eye of this storm was a land-acquisition programme for building a chemical hub with investment from an Indonesian conglomerate, the Salim Group. Located 160km from Kolkata, Nandigram could then be designated as Petroleum, Chemicals and Petrochemicals Investment Region or a special economic zone.
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.
This was a second round of clash between the police and the villagers at Nandigram. The earlier incident on 7 January had left six people dead and led to the government putting more than 230 SEZ proposals across India on hold. Infact, Nandigram had been a no-go area for authorities for the past two months as villagers set up road blocks to stop police entering.
Aftermath of the event
As an aftermath of the event, State-run buses were burnt in Kolkata, and rail tracks and roads blocked, as a spill-over of the protests over unfair acquisition of land by the government for industrial projects in West Bengal’s villages.
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.
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.
Elsewhere, women and children wailed as they sat along narrow mud roads, their homes ransacked, reportedly by communist supporters.In Kolkata, students boycotted classes, trains were stopped by demonstrators outside the city and roads were blocked.
The violence came as a shock, particularly against the backdrop of both the CPI(M) leadership and chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee assuring that all land acquisitions for SEZ projects in the state would be put on hold until it is able to convince people to part with their land.
Officials in the government said the forced police entry was necessitated by the stray incidents of violence reported from Nandigram. The villages there had been made inaccessible with the villagers and political activists protesting the land acquisition process, having dug up all the approach roads to the villages a couple of months ago.
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.
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 had taken place.She called a strike for on 16 March to protest against the killings.
Ms Banerjee demanded the resignation of the Buddhadeb Bhattacharya government and imposition of President’s rule in the state.
Reforms in trouble
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.
Potential areas of violence
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.Only recently, at least 50 people were injured near the proposed POSCO site during clashes.
Left in deep crisis
The “unprecedented" police firing in Nandigram 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 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 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.
Nandigram violence is causing a rift both in the coalition state government and among the alliance partners at the Centre.Some of the constituent parties in the Left Front, which rules West Bengal, were toying with the idea of withdrawing from the government if the police force that muscled its way into Nandigram was not withdrawn.
Many of them—CPI general secretary A.B. Bardhan and West Bengal minister for public works Kshiti Goswami among others—were scathing in their reactions to the violence.
In the Assembly
In his official statement on the floor of the state assembly, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya stood his ground that the police entry was necessary to reinstate the rule of law. “For two and a half months, the administration could not function at Nandigram," he told a House boycotted by the protesting Opposition. He maintained that the SEZ would not come up at Nandigram if the local people did not want it. The police entry was not for land acquisition, he said, adding that he hoped the people would cooperate with the administration and there would not be more trouble. A police camp has been set up at Sonachura, one of the villages in Nandigram.
But not everybody is convinced. A division of the Kolkata high court ordered a CBI inquiry into the violence unleashed in Nandigram and asked the state government to file an affidavit detailing the circumstances under which the police firing was ordered. The administration was asked to allow non-governmental organizations and medical teams to reach Nandigram. Bhattacharya welcomed the court order, saying he too, was contemplating a judicial inquiry.
In New Delhi, the leader of the Opposition, L.K. Advani, sought a governor’s report on the incident from both Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as well as Union home minister Shivraj Patil.
With the violence, the rift between the Congress and the CPI(M) is only set to grow, as the state unit of the Congress was quick to demand imposition of President’s rule in West Bengal. The central leadership of the Congress, however, refrained from making this demand.
The BJP-led opposition is keeping up pressure on the Nandigram issue, paralysing proceedings in the Parliament every passing day, demanding dismissal of the Left Front Government in West Bengal.
In a word
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.The event has forced the Centre to rethink its SEZ policy. The Union Government has been reworking such policies to address the land acquisition issues better. Union Ministers have indicated that one advice the new policies are likely to impart is for State Governments to steer clear of the land acquisition and leave it to the investors.