Two women, victims of violence that rocked Nandigram during the land acquisition protests in 2007, and who live barely 50 metres apart, now find themselves in opposing camps. When Nandigram votes on April 1 for the Assembly election, they have to choose between Mamata Banerjee , who became Chief Minister in 2011 on the back of the land movement, and Suvendu Adhikari who nurtured the constituency as a Trinamool Congress (TMC) MLA but defected to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in December 2020.
Krishna Pramanik of Gokulnagar village received a plaque from Ms. Banerjee and a medal from Mahasweta Devi. She holds on to the memorabilia, a symbol of her courage for the ordeal she endured. “We are with Didi, but the situation scares us,” said Ms. Pramanik, around 48 years old. Her neighbour, Radharani Arre, who was tortured during the land violence, wishes she never had to see this day. “Suvendu has been looking after our needs, at the behest of Didi who has not been able to visit Nandigram often. Everyone cannot get rajbhog (a Bengali sweet delicacy). We will have to support those who have stood by us all these years,” said Ms. Arre, who looks older than her age.
In 2007, it was like fighting a war, recall Ms. Pramanik and other women. The Bhumi Ucched Pratirodh (Land Eviction Resistance) Committee (BUPC), backed by the Trinamool Congress, was pitched against the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M). The protests, which began over alleged land acquisition by the government for a chemical hub, came to a head on March 14 when 14 people were killed and scores injured in police firing. The Left Front, which was in power, had to withdraw the police under pressure. It clarified that no land would be acquired by force. When the BUPC embarked on creating a “liberated zone” in the area, more violence followed. The Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) finally managed to enter Nandigram in November 2007.
Fear of violence re-run
Ms. Pramanik, whose scars from the violence are yet to heal, is upset with Mr. Adhikari for “dividing a village on communal lines”. She referred to him as Mir Jafar, the military commander of Siraj-ud Daula, who betrayed him in the Battle of Plassey. “The peace has been disturbed and we do not know what lies ahead. We do not want to relive those violent days of 2007,” she said, rooting for Didi, who has launched many women-centric schemes, notably the Kanyashree scheme, which gives a cash handout of ₹25,000 for a girl who studies till Class XII; the Rupashree scheme, which provides a one-time sum for marriage; and also Swastha Sathi, a family health card in the name of the eldest woman member. In Bengal, 49% of an electorate of 7.2 crore voters are women. Ms. Pramanik hoped that if the TMC returned to power, some of her aspirations would be fulfilled — help for a son studying to be a lawyer, and windows for a home yet to be painted and now covered with newspapers.
Much has changed in Nandigram in Purba Medinipur since 2007. New huts have sprung up around the brick kilns that nobody dared enter during the violence. The bridge on Talpati khal (canal) that served as the no-go zone between pro- and anti-land acquisition groups can be easily crossed by foot. The narrow roads, which had been dug up at many places, have been neatly laid.
Hours before the Chief Minister began her campaign in Nandigram, about 130 km from Kolkata, on Tuesday, Ms. Pramanik was dressed in a crisp blue sari to attend her public rally. “Let us go and meet Mamata, Bengal’s own daughter,” she urged 95-year-old Narmada Sheeth.
Ms. Sheeth, another victim of violence, is unwilling to talk at first. Her story comes out in bits and pieces. “I have forgotten how many times my shop has been burnt down,” she said. She runs a small beedi shop on one of the intersections of Sonachuda Bazaar. A pension of ₹1,500 a month stopped coming six months ago “because I don’t go to meetings any more”. The Adhikari family has “ruled” over the region for long, and issues like corruption, mismanagement of Amphan cyclone relief funds, and non-delivery of schemes are likely to stick.
As Ms. Banerjee filed her nomination on March 10, posters of “ Bangla nijer meye ke chay ” (Bengal wants its own daughter) appeared on many walls. Launching her campaign, and armed with the slogan, “ Bhulte pari nijer naam , bhulbo na go Nandigram (I may forget my name, but I will never forget Nandigram)”, she said she chose the seat because it was a symbol of struggle.
At the rally, Ms. Pramanik and Ms. Arre could not meet Ms. Banerjee as they were too far away from the stage. They went home dejected, hoping to have an audience with the CM soon. For the moment, Ms. Banerjee has been forced to return to Kolkata after injuring her leg on March 10.
The Sanyukta Morcha has fielded CPI(M) candidate Minakshi Mukherjee in Nandigram. “It is a good thing to say that Bengal wants its own daughter but what about Bengal youths who are hungry and without jobs? How can we talk about Bengal’s daughter when the State has witnessed anarchy over the past 10 years?” is the young leader’s retort to the TMC campaign.
Will the high political stakes and the clamour for domination by all sides lead to violence? In a do-or-die battle for both Ms. Banerjee and Mr. Adhikari, villagers are being forced to take sides. Fear and anger simmer because the events of 2007 are embedded in their psyche.