Nandigram isn’t a pretty place. It wasn’t a pretty place when I had gone there in January, a few days after the first round of violence engulfed the area. Nandigram town, even with a banner proclaiming that the ‘Bangshidhari Tripathi Football Tournament’ was well underway (who won the tournament?), was nothing but a blasted heath. But it had enough smatterings of modernity — mobile phone shops, a busy fish market, a Foreign Liquor (Off) Store — to remind me that I wasn’t in Macbeth country but in 2007 rural West Bengal. The roads were apologies of dirt tracks, with a no-lights darkness connecting the eight-nine villages of the area. I was told that this was a dhaan-paan (rice-paan) area with ‘fisheries’ and even the occasional sunflower field. But these turned out to be apologies as well. The truth is Nandigram was one very sorry place even when left alone.
Eleven months later, with the CPI(M) having recaptured the sub-district from enemy hands, Nandigram is bound to be even less pretty. A terrain where murder and rape have taken place at the behest of the state government — not to mention a ground made fertile by Trinamool-sponsored grandstanding — it would have suited the people of Nandigram if the area had fallen off the map. It didn’t.
But with all the terror that has brought Nandigram its proverbial 15 minutes of fame, I know that it won’t be long before Nandigram does become a pretty place. And what makes me so sure? Because 11 months ago, I heard what the CPI(M) strongman from adjoining Tamluk, Lakshman Seth, had to say about the whole dirty affair.
Seth is also the Chairman of the Haldia Development Authority, one of the original ‘SEZs’ in West Bengal. It was his issuing a notice regarding Nandigram becoming a chemical industries hub that first sucked the area into a cadre war zone. With the agitation in Singur in nearby Hooghly district against the Tata car plant project simmering for a while — matters coming to a boil when an anti-land acquisition activist was murdered in December 2006 — the Trinamool-backed anti-industrialisation brigade were ready to take on the ‘anti-people’ administration in Nandigram. But if Singur was a matter of farmers wanting better prices for their lands, Nandigram was about simply erecting a blockade. And that’s what the opportunistic Mamata Banerjee, ‘losing’ the fight in Singur, ensured was done in Nandigram.
It was Seth who was squarely blamed for being “in a rush”. The Chief Minister had publicly castigated him for not ‘preparing’ the ground and not reaching out to the people to explain the benefits of industrialisation and allaying their fears. Presented as a rogue leader, Seth became the fall guy. Most of us sighed with relief that Buddhababu wasn’t involved in the horrors we were hearing from Nandigram. It was renegade cadres going wild fighting a territorial war. Phew.
But was Seth really the mad, bad and dangerous ‘Kurtz’ cut off from headquarters and doing his own dastardly things in the heart of darkness? He had, after all, won the municipal elections in July, which many within the CPI(M) saw as a ‘referendum’ on Bhattacharjee’s pro-industry policy. Seth had told me on a January afternoon, “If they think that issuing the [Nandigram] notice was a mistake, I have nothing to say. You are aware that despite the number of seats the CPI(M) occupies in the assembly, 50 percent of West Bengal’s people voted against the Left Front.” It seemed he was telling me that whether Buddhababu liked it or not, he needed men like Seth. And instead of silly ideologically bland CRPF men cleaning up Nandigram, Bhattacharjee depended on and defended men like Lakshman Seth who ‘liberated’ Nandigram last week.
Does that make Buddhadeb culpable of killing defenceless people in the form of collateral damage? Yes. Does that make Mamata innocent of using the lives of people as fodder for her own dangerous, stultifying politics? No. As Nandigram prepares to turn pretty, which I’m sure it will now some sunny day, a plague on both the houses of the CPI(M) and the Trinamool. And on Bengal itself.