Abu Taher was a bright and brave field commander of the Trinamool Congress (TMC)-led people’s militia during the battle of Nandigarm in 2007-08. These correspondents, as many others who used to frequent the warzone, had to meet him under the cover of darkness at constantly changing hideouts.For, the CPI(M) ‘harmads’ – the red militia inherited the name from the Spanish Armada, which people in lower Bengal’s coastal areas confused with the Portuguese slave traders in the 16th century – were looking everywhere for three leaders of the armed struggle, now Trinamool Congress MP Subhendu Adhikary, Sheikh Sufiyan and Abu Taher.
Armed with a sickle, a woman protester confronts the police at Sonachur village in West Bengal’s Nandigram. (HT File Photo)
On a hot April afternoon seven years later, Taher looked different. Satisfied with life, looking prosperous and powerful with expensive rings on almost every finger, a bright-coloured kurta and white payjama and a noticeably expensive wristwatch – Taher now occupies the panchayat president’s sprawling offices in Nandigram, a coastal hamlet in East Midnapore district about 70 km southwest of Kolkata.
Clearly gloating, but uneasy in the new settings, Taher got busy explaining how his leader, TMC supremo Mamata Banerjee, had changed Nandigram – laying a few roads, installing some street lights and building a memorial for martyrs, which also houses a free dispensary and a guesthouse, not still functional though.
The only thing that bothers Taher in his perfect world these days is Nandigram’s ‘non-performing’ legislator, Firoza Bibi. So, he is in touch with Banerjee’s two trusted lieutenants, urban development and municipal affairs minister Firhad Hakim and higher education minister Partha Chatterjee. The assembly elections are not too far away. Moves have to be made now.
But Pijush Bhuniya, a Trinamool Congress veteran who is a district board member, lawyer and an author, said nobody had paid attention to the long-standing demand for a proper irrigation system in the area that could ensure at least two crops a year.
“Things are not too rosy. I can say this because I have nothing to lose,” Bhuniya said, adding that the Nandigram farmer is so disillusioned that the government shouldn’t be surprised if another uprising happens anytime. “Power has a way of tripping the best. Ours are small men.”
Asked why they didn’t put pressure on the party and the government for the irrigation system, Bhuniya smiled. “The cases, including murder charges, filed against us during the Left rule, are still pending. The government appealed to the court for withdrawal of those cases, but it was rejected.”Was the government appeal not strong enough? The answer was an uncertain smile.
The same bomb is ticking in Singur – a small town in Hooghly district about 40 km from Kolkata – where the TMC led the farmers’ movement against acquisition of land for the Tatas’ Nano factory. Farmers who opposed the acquisition of 400 of the 900 bighas acquired are still waiting for their land to be returned. They have no other source of income.
Another factor that disturbed the tranquil air of Singur is the removal of agriculture minister Rabindranath Bhattacharya, a Gandhian known for his honesty and uprightness, followed by the promotion of his deputy Becharam Manna, a minor Trinamool Congress functionary in Singur.
Bhattacharya is hurt, but he hid it well. He said, instead: “I think a third party – acceptable to both the TMC and the Tatas – will have to be engaged to sort out the land problem. The Singur farmers can’t wait indefinitely. They will resort to another movement for survival.”
Although the farmers of the two places which brought Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee to power in 2011, ending 34 years of the Left rule, are apparently angry and frustrated. A visit to the home of Tapasi Malik, who was gang-raped, killed and then burnt allegedly by Communist Party of India (Marxist) men, completed the picture.
Her father, Manoranjan, who had agreed to meet us, suddenly refused to talk.
He said he had stopped talking to the media. In rural Bengal, media means the electronic media. Later, assured that we were not carrying any camera to record his statement, he led us into his hut and offered water.
“Please don’t write anything that goes against the government. Since I was a landless farmer, the government gave me a shop. I am somehow surviving and don’t want to lose my only source of income. I am not happy. I have lost my daughter, remember?”
A few meters from the Maliks’ hut, nobody seems to remember. A group of four young men were playing cards at the feet of two slightly glamorised busts of Tapasi and Rajkumar Bhul, another young person killed during the movement.
It was 2:30 in the afternoon. It seemed they have enough time to waste with no land and no occupation. And the elections are still a few months away.