Monday, January 28, 2008

Nandigram killings

Friday, November 30, 2007
India Shining Vs India Burning

Please note that this article - by far- is not the comprehensive exppression/ eruption. I fully understand and acknowledge that this article has certain lacunae. I am not taking this offline due to some readers who insist that some kind of preliminary information is required for them, and this article - however incomplete and unsatisfying it is for me - does that. I wish to state that this project is not complete. I request readers to explore more about the issue inquestion through more readings and analyses - whatever they can find in the media- and do let me know if I need to know something more. I shall be grateful.

- Akanksha Rajput

The Balance Sheet of India Inc looks impressive with the amount of FDI (Foreign Direct Investment) flowing in. India is country that is poised for growth. In the South Asian part of the globe, people look on India remains a visible dot now- Exotic and Entertaining. India sure is going places. But then there are some incidents that exude a threat of leaving permanent scars on the country. The idealism of running a country may transcends to practical realities, and "side effects", but then, these malapropos events offer scenes of human tragedy. One such scar is Nandigram.

Nandigram has shocked people all over the world. There are some people who can opine that it was not surprising, the event was “expected”. A casual shrug, in politics there is always a certain kind of a concession to be made Marxism yielded casualties. Maoism, Capitalism, Communism – all the prime “-isms” yielded casualties. There is always a price to pay, the defenders will be quick to say. Democracy, too measured the price in the quantum of lives- lives of men, women, and children, and I doubt if everyone who was killed had been aware of the price that their blood was paying.

The Nandigram Genocide episode will always be remembered in the annals of not just Indian Politics, but also the Commerce and Legal circles. This one incident is a comprehensive example that caused a major exposé of the entire machinery comprising of law, commerce and industry, and political ideology. It also earned the entire country embarrassment – none of the machinery was in place, and the basic clash of polities and ideologies claimed lives of hundreds of people in a rampage that spanned more than a year. The last time this happened was in Godhra, 2004. The embarrassment was not because of the perception of the United Nations or any other international humanitarian organization. The shame was directed firstly, towards the Centre and the State government for their lack of patriotism. Incidents like these exorcise the horror of vesting votes in the hands of a government that cannot protect its own people, cannot prevent the atrocities caused by its own arms against the people. People don’t count, but power does.

Last week when the news of the imposition of curfew in West Bengal reached the headlines, an entire nation wondered, “What are we fighting for in Nandigram?” This is one question that will continue to hound the parliament in India for a long time to come. The truth is that no one knows what the agenda was behind the inhuman killings. A chalking of the events that led to the staging of the bloodshed can be portrayed. But the reason cannot be found. For, the events that happened, defied reason.

The Base
Nandigram is not a recent happening. The base was set in early 2006, when news spread that India Inc., was looking to acquire some land for setting up industries under the Special Economic Zones (SEZs). Apart from other places like Singur, Nandigram, too, featured in the news for a proposed acquisition by the State Government for industrialization purpose. And here is when the first tug of war happened. India is shining, of course, and notwithstanding that shine, it still is an agricultural economy. May be the shine has not penetrated these rural areas and the villages, wherein farmers continue to chase money lenders, are still exploited, they commit suicide, and if they have the remaining energy they practice agriculture. Or may be the farmers are bored too, and all they want to do is to sell/ lease their lands off and then relocate to a city, and earn actual money. The government cannot make that happen, for, the amount of funds that is granted by the Center under the umbrella of agricultural development is too huge to be sidelined in the name of “development”. So, promises are made by the government about lending money fairly, and the farmers believe them, and keep growing crops and reaping more debts. This is not true of all the farmers, for, India has a large chunk of farmers and even they have their own hierarchy. Some farmers, for example, are very well to do and they can secure their own funds by way of burrowing and lending – like a typical zamindar- and they have their own ancestral lands. Some are overtly attached to their lands and believe in upholding their tradition means and source of income, some do not trust the government or the companies to fetch them a fair deal of price for their lands, or even the promised jobs, and other amenities.

If a certain state government may actually take a step in intervening the proper compliance and performance of a company in acquiring land in a village, and ensuring that the villagers, and farmers get their dues, and also put the state on a fast track economic development, the opposition party in the state would try and cause upheaval – reach the farmers and tell them tales of how the ruling government along with the green buck company is trying to con them. Thanks to the bliss of ignorance, farmers then stage a protest, and the opposition adds more fuel- bloodshed, violence, gang-rapes, etcetera- and asks for the resignation of the representatives of the ruling party. One simple formula. And sadly, it works.

The controversy surrounding Nandigram first saw the light of the day when in the first week of January 2007 a notice was issued by the Haldia Development Authority stating that about 35,000 acres of land was to be acquired in Nandigram for the purpose of setting up a chemical hub SEZ by a certain Indonesia based Salim Group of Companies. A series of ambitious projects were lined up- construction of an Eastern Link Expressway, and a four lane road bridge that would cover the Haldia River. The notification evoked a huge uproar in Nandigram area, in the form of mass protests as the land in question was good for cultivation of a large variety of crops, and it would affect over thousands of people. Whether this was the genuine cry of the farmers or an orchestration of the opposition is not yet known.

The Singur Dispute
Parallel to Nandigram, Singur too, faced a considerable interest in the light of land acquisition by the state government for TATA Motors. TATA intended to set up a factory for the manufacturing of its ground breaking Rupees 1 Lakh car (2500$). The “small car” was slated to be manufactured by 2008. The choice of Singur was made by the company among six sites offered by the state government. TATA Motors made brilliant promises to the farmers and land owners in Singur. The total investment planned is to the tune of Rs 1,000 crore.

Agriculturists claim that the TATA Motors site is the most fertile one in the whole of the Singur. A large chunk of local population depends on agriculture with approximately 15,000 making their livelihood directly from it- the fear of loosing their daily bread and butter seems legitimate. Environmentalists also feared degradation of the land. The project therefore, has garnered controversy in the legal circles, questioning the right of the State government to acquire fertile agricultural land for private enterprises.

The ruling party in the State had advocated an all-acquisition of the area that measures up to 997 acres of multi-crop land. The law – Land Acquisition Act, 1894 - has provisions for state taking over privately held land for public purposes but not for developing private businesses. The illegality of the acquisition has been substantially pursued in the Kolkata High Court. There is an interesting insight into the reaction that the Singur episode has generated. On one hand the chief protestors included the Opposition Party Chief, Ms. Mamata Banerjee, civil rights groups, and environmentalists, and on the other hand, noted Economist Amartya Sen maintained that the factory must be set up. He however, opposed a probable land grabbing scheme of the government that would render illegality to the entire deal.

TATA Motors ceremonially initiated the construction of the plant on 21 January 2007. In an official press release, the Director (Industries) of the West Bengal Government, Mr. M. V. Rao, overseeing the entire project, said although the Government was yet to hand over the land to TATA Motors officially, the company was permitted to start initial phases of construction work. In February 2007, the Kolkata High Court declared the acquisition as prima facie illegal. The High Court ordered the state government to submit correct figures following which an affidavit but was not satisfied with the result. In a fresh affidavit filed later in June 2007, the government admitted to 30% of the land acquired from farmers was without consent. The affidavit was silent on whether the lack of consent was based on insufficiency of the compensation or refusal to sell the land altogether. But the factory is still active. There is no better way to mock the legal machinery of the State.

Nandigram Killings
Since the State Government pulled off Singur despite the vehement opposition from Opposition, and the Court Orders, they perhaps thought Nandigram, too, could be pushed off: the administration moved ahead with the chemical project riding over the protests. It was in March 2007 that the area came under national media scanner, when state government attempted to break the Bhumi Ucched Protirodh [Anti Land Grabbing] Commitee's (BUPC) resistance at Nandigram. About 3,000 policemen along with cadre of the Marxist ruling party were present to carry the government’s orders. However, prior information of the impending action had leaked out to the BUPC who had amassed a crowd of roughly 2,000 villagers at the entry points into Nandigram with women and children forming the front ranks. In the resulting mayhem, at least 14 people were reported dead. However, the count is believed to be more than that.

The violence left the entire country stunned. The state government tried to use the same formula of taming the resistance but this time the plan backfired. The Opposition party, Trinamool Congress maintained that the death toll was more than 50. Naxalites blamed it on the Opposition Party.
Reports said that the bullets that have been recovered out of the victims’ bodies were not used by Police, but by the Underworld. In June 2007, a Parliamentary Committee was set up to fill up the lacunae in the Indian SEZ law scenario. The Committee suggested that the upper limit for acquiring land should not be more than 2,000 hectares if the land is cultivable. But an Empowered Group of Ministers (GoM) fixed the land ceiling at 5,000 hectares. Consequential to the stiff resistance from opposition parties, and the localities, the Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya on 3 September, 2007 announced that the chemical hub will be set up in the tiny island of Nayachar, about 30 kilometers from Haldia. People who were not in West Bengal thought that the violent chapter has been concluded. But unfortunately, there was a new beginning to the reign of terror in Nandigram.

On 7th November, 2007, the Prime Minister of India remembered to express his “concern” over Nandigram. In the same month, the villagers, ruling party supporters who were thrown out of Nandigram by the BUPC returned back to their homes. The BUPC had effectively continued to proclaim Nandigram as a "liberated zone" even after the SEZ was cancelled. This return of the villagers was marred by violence unleashed by the ruling party cadre over the resisting BUPC and the opposition party in Nandigram. Many people sought to perceive it as a "recapture" by the CPI (M) for land acquisition, the same tactic as employed in Singur. Evidence points to the operation being conducted entirely by the party keeping the state administration inactive. The ruling party denied any connection with the fresh violence, but the Chief Minister said that the bloodshed was a payback for the people in Nandigram as they had only destined themselves to this horror, by owing their allegiance to rival parties. He himself said that he made the statement as a party leader, and not as a Chief Minister.*

On November 12, 2007, the National Human Rights Commission has issued a notice to the West Bengal Government directing it to submit a factual report on the conditions prevailing in Nandigram. The Supreme Court of India on 19th November, 2007 dismissed a PIL [Public Interest Litigation] that sought direction to the Centre to take action against the West Bengal government for the Nandigram violence based on the report of Governor Gopalkrishna Gandhi. The Supreme Court said that it cannot pass any such direction when the matter has already come under the scanner of National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). The PIL was filed by Kedar Chand Yadav. The court also said that it was not inclined to entertain the petition which was based on newspaper reports. It also warned the petitioner that this kind of a court hearing would be an “abuse” of the court. The plea was not allowed by the Bench, which questioned petitioner for filing such type of writ petition. The Bench remained largely indifferent to the submissions of the lawyer referring to the Calcutta High Court's November 16 verdict indicting the West Bengal Government for the March 14 police firing in Nandigram which it said was "wholly unconstitutional and unjustified".

Even as the courts argued about the validation of the plea, Nandigram continued turning crimson. On 22nd November, 2007, a group by the name of All India Minority Forum turned violent in Kolkata. The police had to use batons and teargas to disperse the activists, who were protesting against the controversial Bangladeshi Author Taslima Nasreen. It was a classic case of opportunistic politics. This small group demanded that the author be asked to be thrown out of Kolkata thanks to her anti Islamic stand points. There was no direct thread of connectivity to Nandigram violence and Taslima’s stay, but the widespread unrest in the state fuelled by land acquisition issues made the situation so worse that the state government asked for the Army to be called in to restore peace in Kolkata. Taslima, meanwhile, was asked to leave Kolkata despite the intellectuals and theater personalities opposing the government’s move. A curfew was imposed, and the Army was successful in restoring normalcy in the city and the state. The issue of Nandigram is expected to rock the Parliament’s Winter Session.

On 26th November, 2007, the Calcutta (Kolkata) High Court decided to take up the hearing of a PIL seeking CBI probe into the violence in Nandigram on December 3. The court had on 16th November, 2007 directed that the CBI hold an inquiry into the March 14 police and asked the agency to submit a report within a month. Apart from that, CBI is also asked to submit an inquiry into the alleged rape, murder and large scale arson by the CPI-M cadres during the November violence in Nandigram. Compensation for the victims is also on the cards.

The turn of events is hallmark of a barbaric civilization- a blasphemy in itself. People always said and believed that political ideologies engaged some kind of a casualty. The casualty that people understood at that time was in terms of flesh and blood – of volunteers like the Extremists, and many a times, of the innocent victims. This kind of casualty is still sustainable. But what about a scar on a nation’s integrity, on the impact of the bloodshed on people who think that India is finally emerging out of the shell, with a promise of a Developing Economy? It is true that no country is perfect, but what about a country which is ruled by politicians and not leaders? What kind of destiny can that country expect whose politicians are more concerned about grabbing power and establishing their ideology rather than seeing the country move forward? Rather than monitoring the proposed deal with private companies and being a watch dog for the performance of the commitment promised by the private companies to the farmers, the government is involved in illegal land snatching, and the opposition is busy ploughing back opportunities. The blame game lives on. The courts sit tight. The parliament can debate. The ministries can pass the buck. People can continue being killed in the name of ideologies and resistance and allegiance to some -ism. Media can continue ignoring an issue till the time the rising death toll becomes alarming enough to garner highest TRPs and viewer-ship. And a nation’s pride can go for a sojourn.

It is hard to believe that India is shining. Well, for the recent incidents - it is burning.


Posted by Ray

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