Nandigram: West Bengal’s political divide and violence over the turf war is now taking a communal turn before the assembly polls that begin on March 27. A revisit to Nandigram after more than a decade underlines the painful but unmistakable fact.
The predominantly agricultural constituency sprawling over two administrative blocks close to Haldia port and industrial area in East Midnapore district came to fame after violence erupted over the move to acquire farmland for a controversial chemical hub and special economic zone by the Buddhadeb Bhattacharya government in 2007.
Along with similar agitation in Singur, the Nandigram episode was the key catalyst for a change of guard in Bengal that ended 34 years long Left Front rule and heralded Mamata Banerjee’s rise to power in 2011.
The spiral of prolonged violence claimed the lives and properties of both CPM supporters and rival Bhoomi Uchched Pratirodh Committee (BUPC), across the faith line. But the emergence of BJP as the main challenger to Mamata’s Trinamool Congress(TMC) in this Hindu-dominated area with a sizable Muslim population has changed the political discourse, now aimed at communal consolidation.
Mamata fights her former key protege
Mamata Banerjee is fighting her former protege and cabinet minister, Suvendu Adhikari, now one of the BJP wannabe chief ministerial faces and born-again Hindutva hero in this key constituency. Adhikari is playing the Hindu card brazenly calling Mamata ‘an aunt of infiltrators from Bangladesh and Rohingya refugees from Myanmar’, mostly Muslims.
A desperate Mamata is also visiting temples and invoking Hindu deities, more than relying on her developmental claims. Both are claiming to be true inheritors of the spirit of Nandigram’s defiance against the dominant power.
It may worry Mamata and anti-BJP civil society that there was hardly any Hindu presence at a public meeting addressed by top leaders of the ongoing farmers’ movement around Delhi borders.
As the Narendra Modi government has refused to repeal the pro-corporate farm laws and ensure legal guarantee for minimum support price on the farmers’ products, Samyukt Kisan Morcha has urged voters of four poll-bound states not to vote for BJP. Punish the regime at the polls as it is run by the corporates for the corporates and selling off national wealth, from agriculture to airports, they said at rallies in Kolkata, Singur, Nandigram and Asansol.
The rise in fuel prices: does not it hurt Hindus too?
The spirited speeches by SKM leaders including Rakesh Tikait, Rajendra Singh Rajewal, Gurnam Singh Chaduni and Medha Patkar could have generated ripple effects in favor of Mamata in Nandigram. But the thin presence at the rally held a day before the anniversary of the infamous Nandigram police firing on March 14, 2007 made TMC’s half-hearted effort for the mobilisation evident.
The meeting, held under the banner of farmers’ mahapanchayat was organized with the help of local TMC leaders who had put up some festoons and posters welcoming the leaders of SKM on the way to the venue. But the uneven field beside a narrow bypass road between Hindu and Muslim neighbourhoods near was unsuitable for a big footfall.
“Many more locals would have turned up had we been informed properly, particularly about Medha di’s presence. Women here are fond of her,” Anwaraun Bibi, a middle-aged grandma with her daughter’s child on her lap, said. Medha had visited both Singur and Nandigram many times during the anti-land acquisition protests.
Bibi, the diehard Mamata supporter, felt that her Hindu neighbors should have come more in numbers to listen to farmer leaders. “We too are from farming families. Modi’s friends Ambani and Adani will make us buy rice at Rs 200 per kg which is still available at Rs 25. The fuel prices have already skyrocketed. Does it not hurt Hindus too?”
Medha and Tikait endorsed Mamata
Officially, the SKM only called for an anti-BJP vote leaving the choice of alternatives from other parties to them. But Medha did not hide her close relation with Mamata this time too. She met the chief minister at SSKM hospital where she had been admitted following a foot injury during a roadshow after filing her nomination for Nandigram.
Both Mamata and her party have claimed it an ‘attack’ on her by some unknown men from the rival side indicating a BJP conspiracy. But BJP has called it a ‘drama’ and demanded a high-level enquiry. The Election Commission has so far called it an ‘accident’.
In an impassioned speech, Medha recalled the heydays of united farmers’ resistance against land grab and exhorted locals not to fall into the BJP’s trap of religious divide. “Think of the future of your next generation before you vote,” she urged.
Unlike other leaders, Medha named Suvendu and criticised him tersely. ” Suvenduda, you were with us, the farmers. Now you have changed sides after receiving the CBI notice. If you try to poison people’s minds by raking up Hindu-Muslim divisive issues, people of Nandigram will not forgive you.”
Tikait, who knows neither contestant, also endorsed Mamata. “They have caused injury to the sole woman chief minister of the country. Now you should hurt the BJP by casting your votes against the party,” he thundered. Echoing Mamata’s popular poll-time tune, ‘ Khela Hobe (now there will be a great game)’ the Western UP leader said: “Khela Hobe. The lotus flower (BJP poll symbol) will begin to wither away from Nandigram. The great game now starts from Bengal,” he said pithily.
Left’s woman candidate against Mamata
Nevertheless, there is a game within the game. Left Front-Congress-Indian Secular Front alliance, the third arm in the triangular battle for Bengal has put Minakshi Mukherjee, a CPM youth wing leader in Nandigram. Both TMC and the alliance have been labelling each other as ‘BJP’s B team’.
Hannan Mollah, a CPM politburo member and an important leader of the SKM was initially reluctant to attend the Nandigram meet. After he reportedly changed his mind and reached the venue, he was denied a place on the podium. Molla complained of a ‘TMC takeover to humiliate him and undermine the farmers’ unity’.
But the Sikh youths in charge of the security of visiting leaders insisted that his name was not in the changed list of the scheduled speakers. Some Sikh organizers from Kolkata went to the CPM peasant wing leader to salvage the situation but the air was not cleared till late.
The ISF led by Abbas Siddique, one of the scions of a popular Pir Clan, has aimed at cutting a big slice of Mamata’s Muslim votes including in Nandigram. But a random interaction with the audience gave an impression to the contrary.
The majority of Muslims are for Mamata
“We fully stand by Mamata Didi. It was Didi who rushed to help us after the police firing on March 14. Suvendu may make a dent into Hindu votes but we hope majority Hindus here will not approve his betrayal to Didi and his new zeal for divisive issues,” an elderly Lutfa Bibi said.
Others complained of communal instigation from BJP. “We have never experienced communal tension earlier. Now the turncoats are threatening us over petty quarrels. BJP policies are completely different” Sk. Abdul Hi, an aged tailor said.
Kamirul Islam, a youth private tutor who teaches children at Hindu homes, agreed. “My father says he never faced such an explicitly communal mindset during Congress or CPM. Now BJP lingo is scary. So we have to support TMC despite its many shortcomings. I want a regular job. But security comes first,” he added.
Most are happy over Mamata’s old and new popular projects like Kanyashree, Rupashree aimed at girl students, distribution of cycles under Sabuj Sathi as well as rice for RS two per Kg, pension for old age and health insurance scheme, Swastha Sathi. They are angry over rampant corruption and high-handedness by TMC leaders. But Mamata still enjoys their confidence.