In January and March 2007, tens of thousands of peasants at Nandigram in West Bengal, India rose up to defend their land. By the time their struggle abated, the peasants had stopped the plans of the Left Front government in West Bengal to build a giant chemical complex on their land, and they had driven the police and the armed cadre of the CPI (Marxist) entirely out of the Nandigram area for eight months. This struggle radically transformed the political terrain in the growing struggle against the hundreds of “Special Economic Zones” that are being planned and built from one end of India to another.
Based on legislation passed in 2005, Special Economic Zones are enclaves of new industry and infrastructure. SEZs offer hefty exemptions from taxes on profits, no tariffs, and exemptions from most labor legislation. Since SEZs are treated as “public service utilities,” strikes are illegal. SEZs are aptly called Special Exploitation Zones by Indian activists because they allow big Indian capitalists and multinational corporations to extract high rates of profit from their workers and plunder India’s natural resources. Though not yet on the same scale as the sprawling economic zones of southeast China, over 500 SEZs have been approved by the Central and State authorities. Most of them are under construction or in the process of land acquisition.
After plans for SEZs have been announced, farmers have resisted selling their land and peasants have refused to move. When bribery and bullying tactics have failed, the government in West Bengal and as well as other states have employed the 1894 Land Acquisition Act. This British colonial-era law allows the state to force farmers to sell their land for “public purposes” on the government’s terms.
The Role of the CPI (Marxist) in West Bengal
In West Bengal, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, is the dominant force in the Left Front government. After giving up on revolutionary struggle in the 1960s, the CPM reconfigured itself as a parliamentary party. The CPM rode the tide of militant struggle in the West Bengal countryside and Kolkata to power in the 1970s.
Today the CPM leadership is mostly composed of an upper-caste urban elite. It has been able to stay in power through instituting a land reform program in the 1980s (which it has abandoned), and through setting up a system of strong-armed patronage which reaches down into every village in West Bengal. Any who dare oppose local CPM bosses are socially boycotted, harassed over rations, fired from jobs, and thrashed or worse. In spite of the CPM’s self-proclaimed progressive credentials, workers’ wages, peasants’ incomes, health services and primary education in West Bengal (over 900,000 children are officially out of the school system and 40% of the schools have no toilets) are no better than the rest of India.
The CPM has been trying to sell the SEZs as vehicles for “pro-people industrialization” that will allegedly create the material conditions for “socialism.” The document on economic policy passed at the 18th Congress of the CPM in 2005 welcomes foreign capital which brings more advanced technology and generates employment. In fact, the industries being set up in the SEZs are extremely capital intensive and will create few jobs, almost none of which will be for the peasants dispossessed from their ancestral lands. According to a peasant who once worked on the land now occupied by an SEZ near Nandigram, “all those who left their land are selling cucumber and cleaning shit.”
Land Grab at Singur
In West Bengal, the CPM-led government has moved to acquire 140,000 acres of land for SEZs, which will eventually uproot a total of 2.5 million peasants. The first big test of this policy came at Singur in 2006, where the government sought to acquire 997 acres of fertile multi-crop land for an auto plant for the Tatas, the largest capitalist conglomerate in India. This project threatened to displace over 20,000 people.
When the news of the land acquisition came out, farmers and peasants organized themselves in the Singur Krishi Raksha Committee. In early June 2006, over 2,000 peasants staged a demonstration at a government office with bullocks and agricultural implements. Many women carried brooms in their hands, which became the symbol of protest in Singur. In July, peasants blockaded one of the main express roads in the area. On the night of September 25, as local people gheraoed (surrounded) the government office in charge of the land grab, they were attacked by the police and CPM cadre. Dozens were injured, including many women, and one youth was beaten to death.
As popular opposition mounted, the government imposed Section 144 which prevented more than four people from moving together in Singur. When 15,000 unarmed people demonstrated on December 2, over 20,000 police and para-military forces met them with lathis (long batons), rubber bullets and tear gas. This overwhelming show of force made it possible for the Tatas to start erecting a wall along the boundary of the land grabbed by the West Bengal police on their behalf.
The CPM and the West Bengal government believed that the events at Singur would demonstrate the futility of resistance to other planned SEZs in the state. The peasants of Nandigram, on the other hand, drew very different lessons from Singur.
Nandigram is a block of 38 villages located in a coastal area of East Medinipur district, 150 kilometers southwest of Kolkata. Most of the villages here have no electricity. The 440,000 villagers living in Nandigram are mainly lower-caste Hindus and Muslims. The people of Nandigram are small farmers, garment workers, laborers, fisherfolk and shop owners. They have a proud history of struggle, going back to the anti-British Quit India Movement in 1942 when they liberated the area and set up their own government for 17 months.
On December 28, 2006, the CPM representative for the Nandigram area announced that 14,000 acres of land would be acquired for a “mega chemical hub” and a ship building center. One of the investors was to be Dow Chemical, which now owns Union Carbide, a company responsible for 5,000 deaths in Bhopal, India in 1984. The developer chosen by the CPM was, ironically, the Salim group of Indonesia, whose founder was a close supporter of the Suharto military dictatorship that came to power in 1965 after massacring over one million members and supporters of the Communist Party of Indonesia.
This SEZ would have displaced 95,000 people in Nandigram. A total of 130 schools, 112 temples, 42 mosques were to be razed. Thousands of people organized themselves under the banner of Bhumi Uchhed Protirodh Committee (Committee against Eviction from the Land). The BUPC included representatives from Jamiat Ulema-i-Hind, various leftist groups, the TMC (a right-wing opposition political party) and even some local CPM cadre who were opposed to giving up their land.
On January 3, as over 3,000 villagers gathered at a meeting to discuss the land acquisition, police opened fire, wounding four people. The peasants retaliated, beating up a number of policemen and torching a police van. The peasants knew that more police would be coming, so they worked through the night barricading the roads to prevent the entry of police jeeps. For the next few days, the villagers came under attack from CPM cadre from nearby Khejuri and harmads (goons) hired by the CPM. After three members of the BUPC were murdered, the people’s resistance stiffened. Several attackers were killed and the offices of the CPM were destroyed. On January 7, the people succeeded in driving the CPM cadre and harmads out of Nandigram.
From early January until March 13, Nandigram was in the hands of the people themselves. They formed resistance groups to protect themselves from the police and the armed CPM cadre. This situation was unacceptable to the Left Front government, particularly its Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee. In mid-March, the state and local authorities planned a massive military operation to take back Nandigram. The force consisted of Eastern Frontier Rifles, Central Reserve Battalions and more than 20,000 police armed with tear gas and high-powered weapons.
A massacre ensued on March 14, 2007 in Nandigram. 10,000 unarmed villagers underestimated the ferocity with which they would be attacked. The first line of women– Hindus who were praying to a goddess to save their homes, and Muslims who were reading from the Quran–were fired at without warning with tear gas and live ammunition. The initial attack of the paramilitary and police forces was followed by CPM cadre dressed in police uniforms, who proceeded to brutalize the villagers and rape dozens of women. Leaders and members of the BUPC were particular targets. Afterwards, the authorities claimed that 14 villagers were killed on March 14th, but eyewitnesses saw many more bodies of people being dragged onto trucks and driven away for secret burials.
In the CPM’s version of these events, “the mob started hurling bombs followed by opening of fire…. Ultimately the police had to open fire in self-defense causing dispersal of the mob…. However, a number of people were injured in the police firing and it is believed that some of the agitators were also injured by the bombs they were hurling.” (from Bhattacharjee’s speech at the West Bengal Assembly on March 15th) In contrast, even the Central Bureau of Investigation team sent by the High Court in Kolkata concluded that the police firing was “unprovoked.”
Stories of police brutality, rape and murder were consistently reported by survivors at Nandigram Block Hospital, Tamluk Hospital, and the SSKM Hospital in Kolkata. One 35 year old woman said she was pinned between two sticks and gang-raped. Her husband was forced to watch as the cadres threatened to dash their six-month old baby to the ground and stamp it underfoot. A physician reported treating a woman whose uterus had been ruptured after a metal rod had been thrust into her vagina. CPM cadre barged into the hospitals and ordered doctors not to falsify medical reports (eliminating reference to gunshot wounds) and to discharge those who urgently needed medical care.
In the 48 hours following the events of March 14, the people of Nandigram regrouped and fought back. On March 16, more than 20,000 villagers, armed with sticks and iron rods, chased the CPM cadre and goons out of the area. The police and paramilitary forces were restrained because of the public outcry that the March 14 carnage caused. A state-wide bandh (strike) was called by opposition groups. Intellectuals, teachers, youth and students, Muslim groups, artists, singers and many others demonstrated and demanded the resignation of “Butcher Buddha.” Several noted intellectuals returned their Rabindra prizes (West Bengal’s highest literary award) and donated the Rs. 75,000 cash award to the Nandigram relief fund.
Faced with defeat on the ground, the state government announced that the SEZ at Nandigram would be cancelled, though they are actively considering another site in the district.
From March 16 through early November 2007, Nandigram was back in the hands of the people. Fact finding delegations from all over India arrived to investigate. Relief supplies were brought in by caravan. Beginning in April, hundreds of college students organized “go-to-the-village” campaigns to Nandigram in order to get a first hand experience of village life and to understand what impelled the peasants to wage such a powerful struggle to defend their land.
Nandigram Women Organize
A new phase in the struggle began in July when women and girls, including many who had been molested and raped, came forward and organized the Matangini Mahila Samiti (MMS). This women’s organization drew its name from that of Matangini Hazra, who led a procession during the 1942 Quit India Movement and was shot dead. The MMS raised its voice against the SEZ, the CPM and patriarchal customs.
According to Professor Amit Bhattacharyya from Jadavpur University, who interviewed some of its members, the MMS organized large processions of women who stopped the CPM from firing from Khejuri on many occasions. It also organized people’s courts to deal with cases of theft or the beatings of wives by their husbands. The MMS successfully supported women against husbands, including some in the BUPC, who didn’t want their wives to move about freely. Another success of the women’s organization was the destruction of the liquor shops which they correctly identified as a destructive influence on the men.
Throughout the summer, the CPM cadres continuously attacked the villages. Tens of thousands of villagers spent sleepless nights resisting these attacks. The CPM also tried to isolate Nandigram by cutting off food, consumer goods, power and water supplies. Ferry services to nearby Haldia which 10,000 people from Nandigram ride daily were suspended. With local elections coming up in the spring of 2008, and worried that the people of Nandigram could become an example for the rest of rural Bengal, the CPM decided that it had to recapture Nandigram and crush the people’s struggle.
The Second Assault on Nandigram
In the fall of 2007, the CPM gathered a force of 2,000-3,000 CPM cadre from all over West Bengal, backed up by hundreds of hired mercenaries from Bihar and Jharkhand states. This force was armed and trained with AK-47s and Insas rifles. According to The Statesman, on November 1, CPM member of parliament Lakshman Seth told his troops, “The only option now is to kill or get killed. We have to fight till the last drop of blood in our bodies.”
On the morning of November 5, they attacked. The rationale given was that they were merely trying to bring back the several hundred CPM cadre who had been driven out of Nandigram in March. (The BUPC had stated repeatedly that other than 35 CPM cadre who had been involved in murders and rapes in March, all others were welcome to return to Nandigram.)
Over the next week, this attacking force killed dozens of people. Many women were dragged off and raped. The Bengali daily Dainik Statesmen ran a description of these events by Sibani Mondal, a resident of Gokulnagar village: “She was literally trembling with fear while relating the experience of 10 November. She was one of those who joined the procession led by the BUPC at 12 noon [which was] greeted by hundreds of bullets. Many people standing in the front row dropped down on the ground….There were six rickshaw-vans on which dead bodies lying on the streets were placed and taken towards Tekhali. Sibani along with about 600 others were taken to Amratola primary school in a procession with both hands placed on their heads…. There were about 100 women in that group. Some goondas with their faces covered with cloth came to us to identify those who were young. They picked up about 12 girls from them as the meat-seller picks up chicken from the basket and then vanished into the darkness. Soon afterwards, wails and cries of women were heard.”
Over 500 people, including members of the BUPC, were taken hostage and used as human shields by the attackers. Much of Sonachura and Gokulnagar villages, the epicenter of the Nandigram resistance, was looted and burned down. No members of the media, medical personnel or human rights activists were allowed inside the area by CPM cadres. All mobile towers in a radius of 36 sq. kms. were jammed so that news of the massacre could not get out.
Throughout several days of attacks on the people of Nandigram, the police were confined to their barracks. Several units of CRPF paramilitary police were sent by the central government and conveniently arrived after the CPM cadre and harmads had “recaptured” Nandigram. CPM Polit Bureau Member and West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee stated chillingly at a press conference that the people of Nandigram had been “paid back in the same coin.”
As a result of this pre-planned and savage assault, 10,000-15,000 villagers were driven out of Nandigram. Though some people have moved back to their homes, thousands are staying in relief camps set up by neighboring villages or elsewhere in the state. According to a November 24 fact-finding delegation of women’s organizations, many families were scared to return due to the threat of assault and rape by marauding groups of CPM cadre. After the Communist Party of India (Maoist) sent cadre to Nandigram to assist the villagers, a large group of them moved to an area 50 km. west of Nandigram where the Maoists have a strong base of popular support.
As news of this new massacre reached Kolkata, tens of thousands of people from all walks of life took to the streets on November 14 for three hours of silent protest. Marchers wore black badges and held placards reading “Shame on the West Bengal Government” and “Down with Killers of Innocent Villagers.” In early December, the charred bone and skull remains of people killed and burned in November were discovered. After a fact-finding visit to Nandigram, India’s chapters of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International called for an independent judicial investigation and underlined the seriousness of the attacks on women activists by CPM cadre.
However, the CPM’s version of the struggle in Nandigram managed to convince some intellectuals abroad, including Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Tariq Ali and Walden Bello, to write a statement in The Hindu on November 22 advising critics of the CPM not to “split the Left” in the face of American imperialism. Demonstrating ignorance on the real state of affairs in Nandigram, this group wrote, “We understand that those who have been dispossessed by the violence are now being allowed back into their homes, without recrimination.”
This statement received a quick rebuke from a group of prominent Indian intellectuals including Arundhati Roy, Sumit Sarkar and others. This reply pointed to a number of glaring misconceptions in the statement and expressed disbelief that many of the signatories “share similar values” with the CPM. The reply pointed out, “Over the last decade, the policies of the Left Front government in West Bengal have become virtually indistinguishable from those of other parties committed to the neoliberal agenda.” Shortly after the reply was issued, one of the signers of the original statement, Susan George, publicly dissociated herself from it.
Two Models of Development
The unarmed and armed struggle of tens of thousands of peasants at Nandigram has placed the issue of SEZs and forced displacement at center stage in India. In neighboring Orissa, tens of thousands of adivasis (tribal people) are waging militant battles against the construction of massive steel plants and bauxite mines. A 35,000 acre SEZ is being built just outside Mumbai that will be one-third the size of that city. Indian activists estimate that various kinds of forced displacement–industrial complexes, large-scale mining projects, mega-dams, urban “beautification” projects, real estate development and the expansion of tourist-oriented national parks—will uproot upwards of 100 million people in the next decade.
In March 2007, an important national anti-displacement conference was held in Ranchi, bringing together more than one hundred organizations. Its Declaration not only analyses and opposes the imperialist model of “development” that has brought misery to tens of millions in India, but calls for an alternative model of development: “a people-centred model based on a self-reliant economy free from the imperialist yoke. The policies of development must, first and foremost, enhance the well-being of the masses and must be in their interest—not at their cost.”
The Declaration calls for (1) extracting the natural wealth of the country only to the extent that it serves the needs of the Indian people; (2) developing indigenous industry that generates employment and protects labor rights; (3) introducing land reforms with the ultimate goal of “community ownership and individual right to use,” and (4) extensive reforestation, scientific water management and topsoil regeneration. At the core of this new model of development the Declaration states: “All decisions must be made by the people themselves at the grass-root level and built upwards in a genuine form of people’s government. It is the people themselves who know best what type of development is in their interest and what is harmful. They have the inalienable right and are in the best position to decide their own future.”
Calls for International Solidarity
As a result of a meeting held in Birmingham on December 15, 2007, an Initiative Committee for a Solidarity Campaign Against Forced Displacements was formed in Britain (firstname.lastname@example.org). Furthermore, in February 2008 the International League of Peoples’ Struggle (ILPS), an alliance of over 350 organizations from 40 countries, adopted a centrally proposed International Campaign against Forced Displacement in India.
This campaign, which is earmarked to be fully launched at the ILPS congress in June 2008, will build on the anti-displacement initiatives underway in India such as the Ranchi Conference. It will bring together campaigns and movements opposing forced displacement in other countries, expanding the sources of international support and solidarity. This is a sign that when future Nandigrams against SEZs and other forced displacements arise, they will have support from many outside India.
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Dave Pugh works with ILPS and lives in San Francisco, California. If you would like more information or want to work on this issue, please write the author email@example.com.