NEWS

A Nandigram-Style Land Agitation Has Just Broken Out In Kolkata's Outskirts

Villagers pushed police vehicles into ponds, pelted stones.

17/01/2017 10:12 PM IST | Updated 17/01/2017 11:15 PM IST
Rupak De Chowdhuri / Reuters

At Bhangar – in the South 24 Parganas district of West Bengal, approximately 35 km from Kolkata –thousands of villagers came out armed with lathis and pieces of bricks on Tuesday, they placed tree trunks in the middle of roads to prevent the police from entering the area. And when a huge contingent of police was sent to bring the situation under control, the villagers attacked them and their vehicles, pushed the vehicles into ponds, pelted stones at the policemen that injured many of them. Many police vehicles were set ablaze. Three villagers were injured which locals alleged was due to firing. However there was no confirmation from police on opening fire. Some villagers were also injured as the police used lathicharge.

What took place at Bhangar on Tuesday was eerily similar to the events of November 2008 at Lalgarh, where a powerful agitation took place in several villages of West Midnapore district, and that of Nandigram in 2007 which too was a massive movement against the state. In both these movements, local people had dug up roads and placed tree trunks on the road to prevent police from entering the area. In both Lalgarh and Nandigram, Naxalites had played an important role, and in Bhangar too, the CPI (ML) Red Star, a relatively less known Naxalite outfit, is said to have been involved.

The reason behind the agitation at Bhangar is the construction of a power grid project in the area. The grid is being constructed by Power Grid Corporation of India, a Central PSU, though the state government is facilitating the work. A section of villagers do not want the power grid project, but are not against some other industry on the same plot. They feel the power grid project could be harmful for fishing and farming in the area. Villagers on Tuesday alleged that police went into their homes and tortured many – something similar had sparked the first protests in Lalgarh in November 2008.

Even as the government has announced that the authorities would not go ahead with the project – and in fact work had already come to a halt since January 10 – villagers continued with the agitation, giving enough indication that the protests have more to it than what meets the eye.

This is exactly what's worrying for the Mamata Banerjee government. Between 2006-2009, Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress was in the Opposition when some powerful movements against the Left Front government in West Bengal had been staged. These were mostly related to forcible land acquisition, and some movements had even been backed by the Maoists.

Banerjee herself had backed the land movements against the state government, and in fact, all these movements had become important milestones in her growing popularity that culminated in her coming to power in the state in 2011. Now, a similar movement against her government is worrying her, and Banerjee has already asked police to be restrained in the area while controlling the mob.

The current agitation in Bhangar had started in 2014 and is said to have become more potent and powerful in the past six months. It is being led by the local people under the banner Jami, Jibika, Poribesh O Bastutantra Raksha Committee (Committee to protect land, livelihood, environment and ecosystem).

The local MLA from Bhangar is Abdur Rezzak Mollah, a Trinamool Congress minister who had been expelled from the CPM. According to Mollah, the CPI (ML) Red Star is behind the agitation, a claim that police sources also confirmed. Mollah also blamed the Congress, CPM and some human rights organisations behind "instigating the local people into the agitation".

But the fact remains that Mollah – who won from the Trinamool Congress ticket in 2016 from Bhangar (and who has been MLA from adjoining Canning East for eight terms before that) – could not enter the villages on Tuesday. He had been sent by Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee to visit the place and to pacify people, though he remained in the party office several kilometres away from the area.

"I could not go there as the villagers were clashing with the police. If I went in, the situation could have turned worse," Mollah told HuffPost India. Mollah would not say why the government or his party, the Trinamool Congress, could not gauge the situation on the ground despite the knowledge that the agitation was on for many months now.

As Bhangar still remains volatile, it remains to be seen whether Mamata Banerjee, who had herself been part of similar movements against the state government in the past during her role as Opposition leader, is now able to handle the situation on the ground and prevent a rerun of Singur, Nandigram and Lalgarh.

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