Troubled land

Mamata - Suvendu Adhikari face off could polarise those loyal to both leaders

24-mamata Battle-ready: Mamata Banerjee | Salil Bera

In 2007, when protests against the left government in West Bengal over the acquisition of farmland in Nandigram came to a boil, Mamata Banerjee tried to enter the town with a group of Trinamool Congress leaders. Having failed, she sought the help of national leaders. The BJP’s L.K. Advani and Sushma Swaraj were the first to reach out. Even leaders like Asaduddin Owaisi, Medha Patkar and several left ideologues joined hands with Mamata. TMC workers led by Sisir Adhikari would later storm the police barriers. Guided by Sisir, Suvendu, his son, carried out a violent push back against the CPI(M) cadre to become Mamata’s soldier in the Nandigram movement. It soon turned into a humanitarian crisis as 103 farmers lost their lives. Seven policemen were killed and 46 people are still missing.

Those who were part of the land movement cannot stand the mention of Suvendu.

In 2021, the events that are now unfolding in this historic land are hard to believe. Mamata is training her guns on the Adhikari family as father and son have joined the BJP. Sisir, 79, says his decision to bring Mamata to Nandigram in 2007 was the biggest mistake of his life. Suvendu, who won from the Nandigram seat in 2016, will fight Mamata in the upcoming assembly election on the very land where they fought side by side.

The wounds of the violent clashes have not healed completely and the people are still on tenterhooks as a political battle awaits them. Taking note of the sensitivity of the situation, the Central Armed Police Force was deployed in the constituency. Intense checking and frisking is being carried out at various points. This meant that the political activity here is not as boisterous as one would expect in such a high-stakes clash, but on entering Nandigram, hundreds of political flags dominate the open fields. At Reyapara, there are scores of BJP flags on farms next to banners that say, “Bengal wants its son of the soil, not the outsider.” Mamata, in this instance, is the outsider and the banner is a response to TMC’s slogan that says Bengal wants its own daughter.

Speaking to THE WEEK, Suvendu took a jab at the TMC slogan, asking how a 67-year-old woman could be called a daughter. “I wonder if the party has the guts to say that Bengal wants its own pishi (aunt),” he said. That was in reference to Mamata promoting her nephew Abhishek as her political heir.

“You can call her by any name,” said Akhil Giri, TMC chief in East Midnapore. “But her work in Nandigram is a part of history.”

As we arrive at Garchakraberia, the changes are visible. There is strong support for the TMC in this region with party flags and banners atop many buildings. One common slogan reads: “This is our fiery lady. Khela hobe ei bar (Game on, this time)”. “This is the Muslim belt of Nandigram, so you will see a lot of TMC flags,” said Radharaman Das, who runs a tea stall.

There is a serious problem, though. Since the Nandigram movement, there has been a lot of fragmentation of farmland within families. This has led to the breaking-up of the natural water resource and disputes within families, which in turn has made the farmlands less irrigable. And this is why farmers have allowed flags on their lands. As we travel from Reyapara to Debipur, it is striking to see that hundreds of acres of farmland have been converted into artificial ponds for aquaculture, mostly to farm prawns.

On reaching Sonachura, 30km from Reyapara, we meet 72-year-old Radhakrishna Mandol, who says: “What will these poor people do, if they cannot earn money through farming? Prawn [fetches a better price] than 100kg of rice. So, they are cultivating it.” Nandigram is very close to the Bay of Bengal and the groundwater is saline. Hence, it becomes an ideal location to cultivate prawns, which has a huge demand across Bengal.

The villagers who once revolted to retain their farms are now using the land for something else, but Ram Krishna Das, 64, blames the state government for this plight. “Why cannot this government make our land fully irrigated? [If they did], we would not have used these lands for other purposes. If we cannot bring home three to four crops a year, farming is not at all profitable,” said Das.

The people of Sonachura would rather discuss the big political face-off than what is happening to their land. They fear that the contest between Mamata and Suvendu would raise tensions in Nandigram once again.

‘Khela hobe’ is a wildly popular slogan for the youth of the Trinamool Congress across the state. In Nandigram, villagers use the phrase to convey their readiness to wage another battle for their land.

Suvendu Adhikari | Salil Bera Suvendu Adhikari | Salil Bera

“If the BJP tries to force our men and women to vote for them, we will fight back,” said Aswini Patra, a TMC leader in Nandigram. “There can be another war like the one that happened 15 years ago.”

Sonachura is where the bloodiest battle took place in March 2007, when 14 members of the Bhumi Uchhed Pratirodh Committee (BUPC) were killed in police firing. The people of Nandigram say the movement was one of the most secular movements in India, where Hindus and Muslims took up arms together. “Most people are upset that the same man (Suvendu) who had led both Hindus and Muslims is today out to divide the two communities in Nandigram,” said Mandol. “He is telling people that if Mamata Banerjee is elected from here, Hindus would lose their right to practise their religion.”

Those who were part of the land movement cannot stand the mention of Suvendu. On March 17, when Suvendu visited Sonachura, 50 people protested his visit with black flags. Security forces allegedly attacked protesting villagers, many of whom were local TMC leaders.

Villagers agree that Suvendu should have the right to join a political party he prefers. “But why should he let us down like this?” said Debkumar Roy, a leader among the farmers. “Today, he put us in a [dilemma], where he is fighting the election against a person whom we treat as our mother (Mamata).”

Debkumar said he is among 64 people from Nandigram against whom old cases from the movement are being reopened. Almost all members of the BUPC had been jailed, but when Mamata came to power in 2011, the cases were withdrawn.

His wife, Bhaktirani Roy, was also a member of the movement and had been hospitalised for a month after being shot at by the police. She is alarmed by Suvendu’s shift to the BJP. “Why did he not think of consulting us before taking such a decision? We loved him so much. But he ditched us in such a way,” said Bhaktirani.

Nandigram has 1.6 lakh Hindu voters and 80,000 Muslim voters. So, if Suvendu can get about 75 per cent of the Hindu vote, he will win the seat. But if Muslims vote en masse for Mamata, which is likely, and she manages to get at least 40 per cent of Hindu votes, she would be the winner. The people of Sonachura are aware of this equation. “We have taken a pledge that we, Hindus, will vote for Mamata Banerjee,” said Bhaktirani, who is now a TMC panchayat member. “If we cannot do that, then the days of uncertainty and violence will return to Nandigram.”

It was clear that the people who participated in the land movement would be on Mamata’s side. But does that mean Suvendu’s chances are all but dead? A section of Nandigram dismisses that notion, saying that it will be a close fight. This is because Suvendu is eyeing young voters. He also has a following among those, especially women voters, who were not part of the land movement.

Sensing that Suvendu was playing the Hindu card, Mamata began her election campaign in Nandigram with visits to several temples. While doing so, she met with an accident and was out of action for a while. “If she cannot come, there is nothing to fear. We will fight for her,” said Kiran Shaw, another land activist.

While land agitators do not blame Mamata for the lack of development in Nandigram, many others do. Pradip Giri, who lost his son in the police firing in March 2007, is unhappy with Mamata. “The left front government paid me Rs5 lakh as compensation,” he said. “What has this government done? They only paid me Rs1 lakh. We were promised houses and so many benefits. But except [improving] roads, nothing was done.”

Narayan Das’s father, Sankar Prasad, has been missing since the movement. Narayan received a group D job from Mamata when she was railway minister, but is unhappy. “Can’t the government at least declare my father dead after 15 years? Because of that, my sister and I cannot divide the property. I could not perform the last rites for my father and there was no compensation,” he said.

Besides those who felt betrayed by Suvendu, there are also those who feel this election will not be easy for Mamata. Gobinda Das, a young tea seller, says that families will be divided over whom to vote for. “Tensions are running high,” said Das. “Wives may not agree with husbands. Daughters and sons may not listen to their parents while voting. This is because both candidates once ruled the hearts of the people here.”