COVER STORY

High-voltage revolt

Just 30km from Kolkata, a dozen villages have been “liberated” from state rule

40-schoolgirls Land, locked: Schoolgirls pass through the project site in Bhangar.

The day starts late in these villages. Breakfast is infrequent; lunch is deferred to about 4pm. Dinner is often had at midnight. “We are at the crossroads of life and death,” says Mirjan Hasan, his voice hoarse. “Should we think of food at this juncture?”

For the past 15 months, about a dozen villages have been up in arms against a power grid project in the western part of Bhangar block, in West Bengal. These villages, in the South 24 Parganas district, are about 30km from Kolkata.

The state government acquired the land a day before Parliament passed the new land acquisition bill in 2013. The protesters have criticised Mamata Banerjee for using a “draconian” law—the Land Acquisition Act of 1894—to get the land.
Government officials told THE WEEK that money is being pumped from outside. While some said Europe’s green lobby was funding the movement to halt the power project, others said a few local NGOs had given the protesters money in the name of human rights.

It all started in 2013, when the state government acquired 14 acres for the project (spread over four villages), under the Power Grid Corporation of India, to set up a 4,000kV power grid substation. The substation would transmit power to vast areas in the district, to the Sundarbans, and also to parts of Bihar.

Interestingly, the state government had acquired the land a day before Parliament passed the new land acquisition bill in 2013. The protesters have criticised Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee for using a “draconian” law—the Land Acquisition Act of 1894—to get the land. This is the same leader who had, for years, led a huge movement against land acquisition in Singur and Nandigram. That movement had helped her become chief minister.

Once work on the substation commenced, the villagers said they were not told about the project. They said they were bullied into giving up their land. “At the gunpoint of [Trinamool Congress leader] Arabul Islam and his men, the villagers were all forced to hand over their land to the government,” says Mosharaf Hossain, a villager. “He issued an ultimatum that if anybody did not give their land, they would be severely punished.”

Allegedly, the government took land, forcibly, from about 60 villagers. And, they were given compensation as per the old land acquisition act. Twelve villagers, however, refused to take the money. The villagers began protesting the project, but the government apparently paid them no heed.

Though about 12 villages are part of the agitation, state Food Processing Industries Minister Abdur Razzak Molla said only “four to five villages are under seize”, and that “the state government would reclaim them very soon”.

Land acquisition aside, the villagers fear the adverse environmental effects of the project. They say the electromagnetic effect would lead to brain disease, stillborn babies, and the death of fish in the local water bodies. Most villagers farm for a living, and fear that the project would damage their crops. They came to know about these “ill-effects” in 2016, when the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Red Star joined the fray. The party, known for such campaigns, has stalled almost eight similar projects throughout India.

It was Red Star that brought the farmers under one umbrella. Within months, the villagers found their voice and demanded that the project workers leave. On November 13, 2016, police arrested six villagers for protesting at the power grid office just outside Khamarite village. Three of the six were women. All were charged under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act [UAPA].

Said Mosharaf: “They were arrested because they took on Arabul Islam and his team. We were surprised to see that the police came to arrest them along with the Trinamool Congress goons.” He said that Trinamool workers raided the villagers’ homes and threatened them with dire consequences if they tried to halt the project. With tears in his eyes, he added that a dozen women were kicked, slapped and hit on their heads with lathis.

Power play: Banerjee had told state Food Processing Industries Minister Abdur Razzak Molla to resolve the issue. Power play: Banerjee had told state Food Processing Industries Minister Abdur Razzak Molla to resolve the issue.

This led to the formation of a ‘safe farmland and safe environment committee’, in December 2016. Red Star leaders were called to decide on the committee’s structure. It was decided that Red Star would lead the movement, like the one in Nandigram a few years back. The committee was formed. Abdul Aziz Mullick, a 73-year-old from Khamarite, became the president.

Then, in January 2017, came a major twist. The police told the state government that the Maoists, too, had joined the villagers. Hearing this, Banerjee apparently told the police to go tough on the protesters. Allegedly, the police started raiding homes to search for Maoists. Many Red Star leaders were arrested. Party state secretary Pradip Singh Thakur was arrested from Kolkata. National general secretary K.N. Ramachandran was arrested when he came to Kolkata, from Delhi, to join the protest. Both were later released. However, the police could not get hold of key Naxalite Alik Chakraborty, the man behind the villagers’ army.

Almost all the members of the committee were charged under UAPA, which is usually reserved for terrorists. Allegedly, more than a hundred women were attacked by the police.

Said Monowara Bibi of Padmapukur village: “The police barged into my house, where my husband, son and I were sleeping. My husband was a neurological patient and was bedridden. But, that was immaterial to the police and the Trinamool force. They damaged my son’s motorcycle and hit my ailing husband with a stick. He died within three days. If you [Mamata Banerjee] care at all about Muslims (about 98 per cent of the villagers are Muslim), why did you order this assault on us? Does Muslim mean only maulvis?”

She said the goons and the police hit her with lathis, and broke her right knee.

“I will never be able to walk freely. They also destroyed my sewing machine, with which I could earn some money,” she said, breaking down.

Monowara is not alone. Several other women have been attacked. I wanted to meet some of them, but Mosharaf refused. “Sir, our village is known as radical and orthodox in the eyes of liberals. They [injured women] cannot come out openly to meet outsiders,” he said.

The police’s alleged violence led to a massive protest. On January 16, more than ten thousand villagers gathered at the power grid office. This stunned Banerjee, who had promised the Centre that she would get the land. The villagers told the police to vacate the area, but they refused. Kolkata Police then deployed a few thousand men, including its Rapid Action Force. This, despite the area being under the supervision of the West Bengal Police.

Then, say villagers, came brute violence. Said committee member Jan Mohammad Mollah: “The police and Trinamool goons joined hands. They forcibly entered every home, and beat up women and young girls. The police rained bullets on the houses, breaking doors. They even entered the mosque and destroyed everything inside. We could not even pray.”

The battle between the villagers and the police resulted in two deaths. Alamgir Mollah of Swarupnagar and Mofizul Khan of Shyamnagar were shot down. Their mothers, who had allegedly been beaten up by the police, did not even get a chance to bid their sons goodbye for the last time.

The fight goes on: Mirjan Hasan (second from left) and Mosharaf Hossain (in white kurta) are part of the village committee that decides the course of action. The fight goes on: Mirjan Hasan (second from left) and Mosharaf Hossain (in white kurta) are part of the village committee that decides the course of action.

What infuriated the villagers most was that the state government did not even acknowledge the deaths, said Jan Mohammad. “We expected at least an inquiry order from the chief minister,” he said. “But, she refused to order any judicial or magisterial inquiry for the deaths that took place in the firing.”

In a meeting the same night, the committee decided to free the villages from government control. The following day, thousands of villagers created a 5km-long human shield and captured hundreds of RAF members coming from Kolkata. “For the first time, we saw police jumping at our feet for mercy. We caught 350 to 400 of Rapid Action Force men and women and confined them in our village,” said Mosharaf.

The villagers reportedly fought like trained guerrillas. However, they were compassionate, too. “[When] they pleaded with us, we set them free,” said Abdul Aziz Mullick, with a rare smile. “They also touched our feet. But, we knew that other villagers might not allow them to go out. So, we decided to give them clothes of our sons, daughters and wives so that they could change, pack up their uniforms and leave. This is the situation of the police in Bengal. Just imagine.”

In the following days, Alik Chakraborty helped the committee turn the entire area into a “liberated zone”. Said Mullick: “We have told the government that we are all criminals in the eyes of the law. So, it would be better if the government does not enter our villages. Otherwise, there would be all-out violence, which might lead to many deaths.”

The committee decides whom to let into the area. The police are banned, but teachers and government officials can enter with permission. If someone wants to enter, they have to stand at the border of the village. A message would be sent to the committee, which would decide whether the person is needed.

The villagers have also formed about 500 protection groups, with women and children in the front rows. They stand guard at night with lathis and handmade weapons. If the police try to enter the villages at night, the groups will raise an alarm and a “war” would begin. As day breaks, others take up the guard. The “protectors” in the night shift sleep in late, as do the ones in the early morning shift. “So, there is no question of cooking meals or having food early in the morning,” said Mosharaf Hossain, joint secretary of the committee. “All that starts at noon, as we are sure no one would try to invade us during the day. The police and goons both act at night. Even today, we are threatened by Trinamool Congress goons.”

Said Razzak Molla: “We have concrete details that Maoists are backing the movement. They have made the area a free zone.” He said many villagers were armed during the attack. “This is the reason we say Maoists were behind the attacks. However, the government will deal with them and turn Bhangar into what it was. We will not let the power project go.”

In January, the state government had held a global business summit, where it sought investment from industrialists. While memorandums of understanding worth Rs 2 lakh crore were signed, little progress has been made. Several MoUs were signed at the 2016 summit, but these, too, have remained on paper. Moreover, this year, Banerjee plans to visit the US to hold meetings with business groups. In such a situation, a successful land agitation would send a bad signal to potential investors. Sources say that foreign consulates are collecting data on land disputes and other socio-political issues in West Bengal.

Once the villages had been “liberated”, Banerjee reportedly asked the police not to create further conflict. She also told Arabul Islam not to enter the villages. When THE WEEK contacted him, Arabul said, “Talk to the senior party functionaries. I am not authorised to speak on this.”

Battle, cry: Monowara Bibi said the police brutally beat her family, including her bedridden husband. Battle, cry: Monowara Bibi said the police brutally beat her family, including her bedridden husband.

Banerjee also released 17 villagers in police custody as a peace offering. But, she refused to cancel the project as that would send out a bad signal across India, and globally.

After the lathis came the balm. According to the villagers’ committee, the state government said it would be ready for discussions if the villagers handed over the Naxalites they were sheltering. Specifically, Alik Chakraborty. The villagers refused. The government had another offer. The local district magistrate would have a discussion with the 63-member committee, excluding the Naxalites. The villagers said no again. “They cannot issue any conditions before the talk,” said Mullick. “First, they have to withdraw the project.”

He added that Banerjee had tried hard to break the unity of the village committee. At times, Kolkata Police Commissioner Rajeev Kumar and Deputy Inspector General of Police Humayun Kabir called young committee members to Kolkata. They were then taken to high-end restaurants and treated to biryani, mutton curry and firni (a dessert).

Another strategy was to ask imams to call up Mullick and others and tell them not to give shelter to a Hindu Brahmin. “I asked my committee members to eat however much biryani they wanted, and I told the imam that if a Brahmin could stay with Muslims, Muslims could also stay with a Brahmin,” said Mullick. “Then, the imam said he was a Maoist. I said I was ready to live with a Maoist who was sacrificing his life for us.”

Kabir admitted that he was part of the negotiation with villagers, but refused to comment further. “Yes, I was in the Kolkata Police then and had to intervene,” he told THE WEEK. “After that, I was posted in Darjeeling and have now been brought back to the West Bengal Police. Please don’t ask me to say anything more.”

Mosharaf, who was part of the team that was called to Kolkata, said he had biryani at least seven times. But, his decision did not change.

THE WEEK then spoke to the man he was protecting. “Will the government give us in written that it will not go ahead with the power plant? Then I myself would surrender,” said Chakraborty. “I am not here for my own career. We are part of a movement, and we have to achieve the goal.”

After the “liberation”, the government has stopped all civic work in the area. Road construction has been put on hold and schools have been closed for more than a year. Children are being taught at home or in private schools opened by people like Mosharaf. The state government has imposed section 144 outside the villages, and residents are allegedly thrashed and bombed if they step outside the “liberated” zone.

“They have blocked our path so that we cannot go outside,” said M osharaf. “More than five villagers have been injured because of bombs hurled at them when they went outside. The government wants to finish us by cutting off all connectivity. They would like to cut food supply to the villages.”

So, how are the villagers surviving? Apparently, they have help. Many government officials told THE WEEK that money is being pumped into the movement from outside. While some said Europe’s green lobby was funding the movement to halt the power project, others said a few local NGOs had given the protesters money in the name of human rights.

Red Star state secretary Pradip Singh Thakur admitted to being in touch with green outfits in the US, and in Germany, France and other European countries. “We are only taking their guidance on how to protest power [projects] in localities with high population density,” he said. “We have also learnt from them that local electricity supply has nothing to do with grid connection.”

The state government, meanwhile, has refused to move the power plant to another location. State Power Minister Sobhandeb Chatterjee said: “We would not shift the power project under any circumstances. We will not bow down to Maoists and hooligans. The chief minister has asked us to resume work after convincing the villagers.”

Shock and woe: Villagers protest the power grid project in Kolkata. Shock and woe: Villagers protest the power grid project in Kolkata.

Added Razzak Molla: “Land has to be given for power. We will not be able to survive without power. The government will complete the job at any cost.” Interestingly, Molla had opposed the Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee government’s land acquisition in Singur and Nandigram while he was a left front minister.

It seems Banerjee is reliving an old conflict. But, this time, she is on the other side. The opposition parties have apparently teamed up to take on the Trinamool government. Pradip Singh Thakur said that his party had its differences with the CPI (Maoist), but they were working together in Bhangar. “We are getting support from all parties, except the Trinamool Congress and the BJP. To some extent, we are even getting support from the Congress. I have no qualms in admitting that we are taking the help of the Maoists. We are opposed to their tactic of killing people, but we are taking their moral and ideological support.”

Does that mean there is a broader communist unity in the making? “I will not deny that there is an attempt in that regard,” said Thakur. “Even the CPI (Marxist) is in a position to support us.” Asked about this, CPI(M) state secretary Surjya Kanta Mishra said, “Of course, we morally support the people of Bhangar. They even have the support of the intellectuals.”

While the parties might have political gains from forming an alliance against Banerjee, the village committee is doing so out of pure anger. Mullick, in fact, said it took the Bhangar movement for them to understand her “true colours”. “Our biggest mistake was to trust her,” he said, eyes turning red. “Muslims all over Bengal played a key role in making her chief minister. Forget about coming to us, she did not even deplore the violence unleashed by her gang and the police. She is thinking of becoming prime minister now. But, when she cannot carry 5kg, how would she be able to carry 500kg? We must tell her that Muslims brought her to power, and they could end her political career.”

To show their strength, the villagers have decided to fight the upcoming panchayat election in their committee’s name. Mosharaf said they would rule themselves and would send representatives to four panchayats and one zilla parishad of South 24 Parganas.

As I began my journey out of Khamarite village, I saw tears rolling down the cheeks of Jan Mohammad. He lost two shops in the police action. “We have reached a point of no return,” said Mohammad, 60. “The government wants to see our patience. We want to see theirs. If they agree to [our demands], all right. Otherwise, there would be a full-blown war. We are ready to die. But, there is no way we will go back or hand over our leader Alik Chakraborty.”

As dusk sets in, Khamarite village wears a deserted look. Suddenly, young men assemble, armed with sticks. They move to the abandoned power grid office, which is manned by a few Eastern Frontier Rifles guards. Apparently, the government believes the villagers have been stealing items from the office, like switch boards, transformers and coils, and, hence, deployed the guards.

“We would also like to tell them [the guards] to confine themselves to the power house only,” said Khalil Mollah, a 68-year-old farmer. “I think soon you will hear about something dangerous happening here. That would either finish us or you will see the fall of the state government. Mamata Banerjee is digging her own government’s grave.”

Oli Mohammad, treasurer of the committee, said many villages in the area, all the way to the Sundarbans, were Muslim dominant. “Wait till next year and see how the Muslims vote for Mamata. She still has a chance for course correction, otherwise the beginning of the end has already started.”

What would they do if the project was not stopped? Mohammad said: “Then you will either see trucks laden with our bodies, or a government without Mamata.”