Ground Zero Nandigram

Poornima Joshi | Updated on April 22, 2021

Saffron wave: A region that was once a Left stronghold till the TMC ousted it is now swathed in saffron   -  PTI

The hemming in of Mamata Banerjee by the BJP in what was once a Trinamool stronghold sums up the story of West Bengal elections

* Nandigram, clearly, is more than just a constituency

* With his entry into the BJP, Suvendu Adhikari has given the discourse a communal hue, labelling Mamata Banerjee as the “Begum” and “Phuphi” (aunt) “appeasing” Muslims

* Banerjee spent the last five days of the election campaign in her constituency, while Modi addressed a rally in neighbouring Kanthi and Amit Shah held a road show in Nandigram


In the spring of 2007, when Dol — Holi in the East — was doused with blood, and cries of Ma, Maati, Manush resounded across Nandigram, a young man waited at the Kolkata airport to receive the charismatic All India Majlis-Ittehadul-Muslimeen Member of Parliament, Asaduddin Owaisi.

Owaisi recalls riding pillion behind this resourceful and eager Trinamool Congress activist to lend support to the Bhumi Ucched Pratirodh Committee (or committee against land acquisition) around which the villagers — incensed by the then ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist)’s bid to take over their land to build an industrial hub — had built a powerful movement.

We shall overcome: The battle that has unfolded in this tiny hub of 138 villages has acquired epical proportions in Banerjee’s struggle to retain Bengal   -  PTI


They navigated pathways where pits had been dug to cut the villages off from the highway to block police and government officials. The young man who gathered forces and mobilised troops at Ground Zero Nandigram, which marked Mamata Banerjee’s ascent to power and demolition of the CPM’s 34-year-old rule in West Bengal, was Suvendu Adhikari. He was her former comrade-in-chief, a man she now condemns as Mir Jafar, the general who betrayed the Nawab of Bengal, Siraj ud-Daulah, in the iconic Battle of Plassey.

Shifting sands: Nandigram is the stronghold of Suvendu Adhikari, who fought and won from the region in the last poll   -  PTI


It is an unfortunate simile, given the historical defeat of the Nawab and subsequent capture of Bengal by the East India Company. Adhikari and his powerful clan, including his father, former Union Minister and Parliamentarian Sisir, have joined forces with the resurgent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Bengal.

Nandigram, clearly, is more than just a constituency. This is the stronghold of Suvendu Adhikari, 50, who fought and won from Nandigram in the last poll and is contesting from here again. This is where Banerjee is fighting the election from as well — having given up her old constituency, Bhabanipur, in Kolkata. The battle that has unfolded in this tiny hub comprising 138 villages in Purba Medinipur district has acquired metaphorical proportions in Banerjee’s epical struggle to retain Bengal against what her party routinely describes as the “Gang of Tourist Outsiders” — aka Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his chief lieutenant, Home Minister Amit Shah.

They are fighting in the streets, literally, as posters, banners and buntings line up every nook and corner leading into clusters of huts in tiny villages where large cut-outs of a smiling Modi with a determined Adhikari appear at frequent intervals amid lush green paddy fields. Mamata’s is a solo act: A life-size portrait in trademark white sari against the party’s blue backdrop and the Trinamool Congress’s three-leaf symbol. They’re stuck on walls, stand on rooftops and vie for space with the BJP’s fluttering lotuses in the expansive countryside.

“It’s 50:50,” said Deenbandhu Dolai, a former CPM supporter-turned-Banerjee-fan and recent convert to the cause of Jai Shri Ram which had, till the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, very little resonance in Bengal.

Dolai’s is a story that symbolises the political transition in Bengal from the omnipresence of the Left to Mamata’s stupendous rise and the recent resurgence of the BJP.

“Didi was here for us when Buddho tried to take our land,” he said, referring to Buddhadeb Dasgupta, the former Chief Minister who initiated the CPM’s bid to re-industrialise Bengal with the setting up of an automobile plant for the Tatas in Singur and building a chemical hub as a Special Economic Zone in Nandigram. “We were all a part of the CPM till then. But all that is in the past. Now our children need jobs and we need unnayan (development). My son has had to leave us to work outside,” said Dolai who runs a tea shop in Kiya Khali village in Nandigram.

There is, simultaneously, a strong connect with Adhikari, who has been their MLA and has worked strenuously for the uplift of this tiny hamlet.

One-horse town

Nandigram itself is literally a one-horse town with a small market, police station and residential units of just over 5,000 people. The constituency, with an electorate of 2,57,299, is a network of villages, all connected with a metalled road. There are schools, a functioning hospital in Nandigram and visible development work done in the area.

The locals’ association with the Adhikari family is over generations. He does not need the BJP to lend their money and organisational power to aid his campaign. In his three-storeyed election office just outside Nandigram town, the organisers all hail from the nearby villages and swear allegiance to the new cause.

“Nandigram belongs to Dada. Even in the Lok Sabha, the BJP gained elsewhere but here, Didi’s party did not lose anything because people vote for Dada,” said one of Adhikari’s election managers who did not want to be named.

He is not wrong about Adhikari’s popularity in the area. The sitting MP from Tamluk Lok Sabha seat — of which Nandigram is a part — is Dibyendu, Suvendu’s brother, who won on a Trinamul ticket. The gap between the BJP and the Trinamool in the 2019 elections from the Nandigram assembly seat was over 33 per cent. “Dada drove out Lakshman Seth and the CPM, and now he will bring the BJP,” the election manager added.

Seth, the CPM’s former three-term MP, is largely blamed for the police firing and violence that spiralled out of control in March, 2007. Seth was the all-powerful MP of Tamluk who pressed ahead with the Nandigram project despite the resistance to acquisition of land for the Tata project in Singur that had already snowballed into a popular movement in the state. “The land belongs to the Government,” Seth had famously declared, “Those cultivating the land are tenants and the Government can acquire it for a public purpose.”

While visuals of the police forcibly marking land for acquisition in Singur and attacking protesting villagers were still flashing on local TV channels in December-January, 2007, the Haldia Development Authority issued a notice for public information regarding the likely location of the SEZ project in Nandigram Block 1. Villagers gathered and attacked the gram panchayat office and started taking turns to guard the areas which had been earmarked for the chemical hub.

They assert that the violence in January, 2007, was started by Sheikh Abdur Rezzak, the head of 9-Kalicharanpur Gram Panchayat who called the police to open fire at the farmers protesting against what they believed was a certain step towards eviction from their land. The chain of events that started then continued throughout the year with the March incident, when 14 people died in police firing, being the most violent.

The end

This marked the beginning of the end of the CPM rule in Bengal. Nandigram was swept by the TMC with Adhikari defeating Seth in the 2009 parliamentary elections. The then CPM General Secretary Prakash Karat claimed in an editorial in the journal People’s Democracy that as many as 2,500 leaders, supporters and members of the party were driven out of the area.

At the time, it was a secular struggle against acquisition with the local maulvis and priests praying side by side to galvanise the public against the outsiders. From Asaduddin Owaisi to environmentalist Medha Patkar and writer Mahashweta Devi, the TMC cadre led by Adhikari facilitated visits of every activist, political leader and public intellectual who supported the anti-land acquisition movement.

But with his entry into the BJP, Adhikari has given the discourse a communal hue, labelling Mamata as the “Begum” and “Phuphi” (aunt), “appeasing” Muslims.

Muslims are spread out rather unevenly in the two blocks of Nandigram. In Nandigram 1, the population is about 34 per cent of the electorate while in Nandigram 2, there are 12 per cent Muslims. Activists in his election office deliberated openly about strategies to counter the “Muslim dominance” while at the corner meetings and road-shows, the chants of Jai Shri Ram were frequent and belligerent.

At the Chief Minister’s election office, Cabinet ministers and the TMC president Subrata Baxi were a daily visitor while the Rajya Sabha MP Dola Sen was stationed in Nandigram for months to coordinate various meetings and public engagements for the April 1 poll.

The TMC was clearly aware of the risk that Banerjee had taken in contesting only from Nandigram against a powerful local leader. She spent the last five days of the election campaign in her constituency, while the BJP put the pressure on with Modi himself addressing a rally in the neighbouring Kanthi and Amit Shah holding a road show on the last day of the campaign in Nandigram to coincide with Banerjee’s road show earlier in the day.

The West Bengal Assembly election results will be out on May 2. The TMC’s anti-incumbency load and the BJP’s novelty factor are players in this election. The Hindu-Muslim divide is more visible than ever before, and the state is wracked by deepening caste stratifications. The people want an alternative to Banerjee, and the BJP has made itself a plausible and viable force.

Female power: Will the people of Nandigram vote for the West Bengal government’s women-centric welfare schemes?   -  PTI


Dola Sen, however, is convinced that the BJP will be roundly defeated. “The BJP is dreaming. They’re planning who will become CM, Deputy CM. But they have no candidates. So they steal people from TMC. Those who have earlier been targeted by ED, CBI, central investigating agencies then get washed by ‘washing powder Bhajpa, washing powder Bhajpa’. Then they push them against us. You wait and watch, Didi will defeat these people by a record margin. Go and ask the women whether they will vote for Kanyashree, Rupashree, Duare Sarkar (West Bengal government’s welfare schemes) or they’ll fall for false promises, jumlas,” Sen told BusinessLine.

But the violent clashes between the two parties and Mamata’s constant attacks on the central security forces continued till the day of the polling. The West Bengal CM found herself hemmed in in Nandigram — and there hangs a tale about a region that was once a Left stronghold till the TMC ousted it, and is now swathed in saffron. It sums up the polls and politics of the state rather neatly.

Published on April 22, 2021

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