"Anarchy (as was stated to be prevailing at Nandigram) would not
be tolerated and would be crushed with a heavy hand."
—West Bengal chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya at a March 11 rally in Calcutta organised by the peasant's wing of the CPI(M).
The chilling words from Buddhadeb, with all their old Soviet punch, came to life two days later in troubled Nandigram. A 5,000-strong police force converged on this east Midnapore block—off-limits to the ruling CPI(M) in a two-month-long, sustained act of political defiance—to quell protesting villagers daring the might of the state machinery. Their land was at stake, about to be written away by the state to the Salim group of Indonesia to set up a Special Economic Zone (SEZ). Predictably, things caught fire—literally. In the end, the police had gunned down 14 protesters, wounded 71. They were certainly aiming to kill—the bullets had all hit the dead above their waist.
For the CPI(M), it was nothing short of a gigantic tactical blunder, at all levels. For one, Nandigram is in no way subdued—if anything, the ground seethes with calls for revenge. And then there's the stain on their cultivated image of political morality. All hell broke loose at the Left Front meeting on March 15. The CPI(M)'s allies—CPI, the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP), Forward Bloc—erupted in rage and contrition. Its own leaders were shocked by Buddhadeb's action. Said a furious Jyoti Basu, ex-CM and party titan: "This is no way to run a coalition government. Things are being decided unilaterally without consulting our allies in the Front. This can't go on."
For over two months, Nandigram has been a 'no-entry' zone for the state administration. CPI(M) cadres had all been driven out. Deep trenches were dug in all approach roads and bridges were damaged to prevent vehicular traffic. The March 14 drive was meant to reclaim Nandigram for the cadres, with police help—a show of state force, it was thought, would end the blockade. But it all ended in a mess of plucky protesters facing police bullets.
The administration claimed the police firing was "in self-defence". But nobody was convinced. It only deepened fissures within the Left allies over the SEZ issue. Even West Bengal governor Gopal Krishna Gandhi put it on record that he was filled "with a sense of cold horror". He also said he had been advising the state government against hasty action, based on reports of rising tension at Nandigram . Now, the Calcutta High Court has ordered a CBI inquiry into the incident.
It's now clear that many in the state government knew any bid to wrest control of Nandigram by the administration and the CPI(M) would be met with stiff resistance and could well spark off violence. Says PWD minister and senior RSP leader Kshiti Goswami: "I don't think those who planned the operation were unaware of the ground situation. They very well knew things would go out of hand and lives could be lost. They went ahead despite that. It was nothing short of barbaric." Adds senior Trinamool Congress leader Sobhandeb Chattopadhyay: "There was no way the people of Nandigram would have allowed the police and CPI(M) cadres to re-enter without any resistance. Everyone knew they would put up stiff resistance, and that blood would be shed if the police tried to bulldoze its way. That the government went ahead with its plans only showed it was ready to kill people."
CPI state secretary Manju Kumar Majumdar calls the police action "brutal and unprecedented" while Forward Bloc state secretary Ashok Ghosh even said Wednesday's firing has "irrevocably harmed" Left unity. Given such a potential risk to its overall equations, which it could have well foreseen, why did the government go ahead with its plans? Buddhadeb told the state assembly a day after the incident that "no government could tolerate the absence of law in a part of the state for two months", indicating it was a planned action. In fact, on March 12, state home secretary P.R. Roy said massive police reinforcements were being dispatched to Nandigram. This was backed by a similar massing of CPI(M) cadres.
As this build-up continued over three days, reports trickled in of mounting tension in Nandigram—of the local farmers affiliated to an opposition coalition comprising Trinamool, fringe Left and Muslim groups preparing to put up resistance. Raj Bhavan sources told Outlook that the governor had, in fact, twice discussed the issue with the CM and urged him to avoid a showdown. "The governor specifically warned that things may spin out of control and lives could be lost," a senior officer privy to the events told Outlook.
The feedback from Nandigram, coupled with these warnings from the governor, proves the government was determined to go for a police crackdown, risking bloodshed. It had seen the fact that CPI(M) men, along with their families, were forced to flee Nandigram and take shelter elsewhere as unpardonable. Says lawyer and former Trinamool MLA Arunava Ghosh: "There was massive pressure on the CPI(M) state leadership from the party cadres in Midnapore to reclaim Nandigram. The party's setback at Nandigram, it was told, would set a dangerous precedent and could embolden opposition forces elsewhere to try similar tactics."
Even the CPI(M) unwittingly attested to this view when its leaders drew parallels between Nandigram and Keshpur, also in Midnapore, where the Trinamool had displaced the CPI(M) through violence a few years ago before the comrades re-stabilised control through brute force. But then Keshpur's clashes were purely political in nature. Nandigram is a different story altogether—the opposition to the CPI(M) is not political; it is over the highly emotive issue of land. Many within its own ranks feel the party has gravely erred in drawing this parallel between Nandigram and Keshpur.
The operation was seen as one needed to keep CPI(M) cadres happy and allow them to stake control over the area. Says Goswami: "We (RSP and other LF partners) were kept totally in the dark over this crucial decision. I wonder, what's the point in remaining in the Front if crucial decisions are going to be taken unilaterally by the CPI(M) and the CM."
Meanwhile, the police firing hasn't cowed down the people of Nandigram. On March 15, they ransacked and tried to torch the Block Development Officer's office. The locals have vowed to drive out the police and the CPI(M) from the small pockets over which they regained control the day before. Clearly, we haven't heard the last of Nandigram's sordid saga. The ides of March don't bode too well for Buddhadeb.