The flavour of Kolkata

The flavour of Kolkata
The bridge, the river and kids' play. Brilliantly captured by Sujay Kumar Das.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The overpowering Black Wednesday

What kept me from writing on this blog for long was the happening in Nandigram on 14 March, Wednesday that rocked Bengal and Bengalis all over the world and fellow Indians too. I could not justify any other topic for a new blog post and was struggling to find expression for the same.

It’s already a well-known fact thanks to wide coverage in local and national media. Thousands of policemen moved into Nandigram, which was isolated from the rest of Bengal by choice thereby protesting against the possibility of land acquisition by state government for industry. After early rounds of tear gas and rubber bullets they opened fire on the thousands-strong agitating armed mob. The casualties were horrible- a large no. of people died and got injured. The official figure, as expected was low- 14 people died. Unofficial figures say it was hundreds of both.

Media was prevented on the highway to Nandigram by cadres of ruling party, so that the ‘operation’ remains under wraps. The only channel that sneaked in was Kolkata TV, the Bengali news channel. Hence live footage could be seen only on this channel. As a result the channel was strangely stopped from being beamed in pockets of the state (Read local ruling party units ensuring cable operators do the needful).

What many media sources- print and electronic- have implied and confirmed that with police were CPI(M) cadres cleverly in disguise of policemen and they opened fire, beat up villagers brutally (Including children) and raped hapless women. Some bullets recovered from injured persons are not police bullets. Many people are still missing, including some who were seen injured while the firing was on. There have been reports of dead bodies thrown away at Haldi river.

This is the first of its kind in the left rule in Bengal. Not that there haven’t been instances of mass political and police killings and other excesses before (The Keshpur saga is still fresh on our minds), but everything pales before Nandigram. The only parallel I can draw is China’s Tienanmen Square in 1989. And it paints a radically different image of the chief minister (Who happens to be the home minister too, thereby directly responsible for this police operation). The CM I, and many like me, knew could not approve of such an operation. It is understood why such an operation was planned- Nandigram was a red bastion, i.e. six of the ten gram panchayats in Nandigram I (The area proposed for acquisition) belongs to CPI(M) and one to CPI. And in the wake of the ‘Save land from acquisition’ movement organised by Jamait Ulema-e-Hind and political parties especially Trinamool Congress, many left members and supporters were driven out of Nandigram. Those in control of the villages in Nandigram dug up roads and the ferry ghat was made dysfunctional, thereby isolating the area from civil administration. and police. While the lives of the left became miserable, the local CPI(M) units put pressure on their city headquarters to make way for their return to home. Meanwhile a no. of all-party meets were convened in Nandigram but they failed to reach consensus of all groups involved.

But it was indeed a high-risk task to force the desired situation with the help of police. While administrative interventions (All-party meets) failed, the government had to be more strategic and patient in using both political and administrative steps to bring back normalcy gradually. A large no. of people who died and were injured were children and women, as they were strategically put on forefront to dissuade police from firing. What, in such a scenario, prompted police to open fire, whatever have been the provocation (Stones and crude bombs were reportedly thrown to the police), is still being investigated. The initial CBI probe (Ordered by Calcutta High Court following a suo moto case immediately after the incident) has not found any evidence that substantiates it.

The government has not owned up responsibility for the whole incident and it has tried to present the incident as unavoidable. CPI(M) too hasn’t owned up the ruthless atrocities. There hasn’t been any known efforts of organising additional medical care for the injured admitted in the hospitals or declaring any compensation for the affected families. All this paints the picture of a ruling party possessing a terrible arrogance that grows out of a record thirty years in power. Such scaring arrogance is the sign of a typical communist government, like the Chinese government who ruthlessly killed students at Tienanmen Square. What the operation also suggests is that the CM can’t handle mounting pressure from his own party and take decisions that requires a matured political and administrative brain. Subsequent reports after 14 March have also shown glaring loopholes in his information network that should make him uncomfortable. He seemed to have no inkling of how heated the situation in Nadigram was.

All this has resulted in the intelligentsia of Kolkata distancing iself from the government it supported heartily. Prominent leftist theatre personalities have mass-resigned from the state drama academy and writers have mass-refused state literary awards. Celebrities, lawyers and journalists have held rallies in protest. They have voiced their frustrations and vented anger on television channels and newspapers. The general public showed their protest in a spontaneous support of the strike on March 17 called by all opposition parties.

I was numb for some time and living with restlessness for two days. What happened in a state ruled by a chief minister like Buddhadeb Bhattacharya was not in my wildest nightmares. All that I would like to say is that Nandigram left a scar that will take ages to heal, and it will change the course of land acquisition in Bengal and in India forever. It has already started in the state government’s notice that no land will be acquired in Nandigram and central govt.’s amending the land acquisition policy. It remains to be seen how many miles the CM has to tread before he restores his erstwhile legendary positive image that is badly messed up.