What Bengal worries about today, India may have to worry about tomorrow.
Exactly 150 years after a cantonment in the region sparked off what would become the Mutiny, a different kind of uprising is being witnessed. As in 1857, the ongoing farmers' agitation against the West Bengal government's industrialisation spree is the outcome of governmental mismanagement, rumour-mongering, genuine grievances and politics.
The fact that farmers are agitating against the CPI(M)-led government is ironic, considering that it was the Left Front government that had successfully launched the land reforms programme in the 1970s. Abhirup Sarkar, economist at the Indian Statistical Institute, says, "The slogan of Operation Barga was 'Who holds the plough, owns the land'. The revenue generated from farmland was divided 75:25 between the farmer and the landowner. Now, with the land being acquired by the government, the proceeds from the sale would be divided 25:75, the complete opposite of the old equation."
But it is not only about the money. In Singur in Hugli district, the epicentre of the ongoing agitation, farmers insist that they were kept in the dark about the government's plans to acquire farmland for the Tata Motors project. "The Tatas are not our friend or foe. But if we didn't sell our land, how can the government claim it has acquired 997 acres willingly?" says Binoy Das, a farmer in Kasher Bheri village, Singur. With a Hindustan Motors plant already in Singur, farmers are not averse to industry. They just do not understand why the government is replacing, rather than supplementing, agriculture with industry. "We had gone to the district magistrate saying the government could acquire the 3,000-odd bigha land of Talabhomra's Maath. It is not farmland and would have suited everyone," says Dudhkumar Dhara, a gram panchayat member. Allegedly, the district magistrate didn't entertain the idea.
Farmers in Singur are cut up about the government trying to hoodwink them. The prices of farmland were initially decided according to the 1973 records. What was recorded as single-crop land could be a plot on which at least three crops are being grown today. In other words, the pricing was flawed, and the state government, despite the generous compensation package, has been forced to have a 'relook'.
Opposition parties, of course, have rushed in where economists fear to tread. While Mamata Banerjee has picked up the question of why fallow or single-crop land cannot be used for setting up industries, others are less rational about their opposition. Becharam Manna, coordinator of the Singur Krishi Jami Rokkha Committee (Farmers' Land Protection Committee), wants villagers in nearby Dankuni to "oil your sticks" and be ready to fight. "I've hit the Tata people when they came here," he says proudly, "We will not let industry be set up in our villages." Manna's tirade goes against the Trinamool 'appeal' that fallow land in Dankuni be considered for the Tata project.
The fenced-off acres in Singur stand almost forlornly next to the lands on which farmers are going about their usual work. Clearly, there are lands that have been willingly sold. But according to those tending to the current potato crop, most of them are either landowners who do not live in Singur and therefore do not depend on their land for a living, or are CPI(M) sympathisers. Despite the Trinamool rallies, the CPI(M) cadre violence unleashed on locals last December, and the murder of an anti-acquisition activist in December, the Singur issue is still confined to the 'farmland versus fallow land', 'right price versus wrong price' questions. But that is not the case in Nandigram.
Hell broke loose in this East Midnapur village after the CPI(M) parliamentarian from nearby Tamluk, Lakshman Seth, who is also chairman of the Haldia Development Authority (HDA), issued a notice earlier this month on the plans regarding the setting up of a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) by the Salim Group of Indonesia. "It was a planning notice. There was not a single mention of the word 'acquisition' in it," insists Seth. "The deal with Salim Group was announced in July 2006. Since then, misinformation had been flying about. There was a leak from the district magistrate's office and the notice was to counter all these rumours."
Apart from the district magistrate keeping mum about the charges by Seth, the chief minister himself has blamed Seth for turning Nandigram into a byword for violent resistance to industrialisation. Seth is not the only person who thinks he is being made the fall guy. "If they think it [issuing the 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 per cent of West Bengal's people voted against the Left Front," says Seth, himself a CPI(M) MP.
There are other agricultural towns and villages that are following Nandigram's trenchant line against the state government's industrial plans, barricading themselves and setting up land protection committees. The government has woken up to the fact that they cannot take for granted the people who have supported them for the last 30 years — the farmers and sharecroppers of rural West Bengal. In the middle, the Left Front itself is divided, with parties like the CPI and the Forward Bloc — not to mention the fringe CPI(M-L) — opposing Big Brother CPI(M) along with the Trinamool, the BJP and, to a lesser extent, the Congress.
Left Front chairman Biman Bose has called all the political players opposing industrialisation in West Bengal "hyenas". He carefully sidesteps the fact that even within the CPI(M), there are serious differences — a subplot being allegedly orchestrated by former CM Jyoti Basu.
With SEZs a matter concerning other states and the Centre as well, it will be keenly followed whether the revolts in West Bengal will have a domino effect elsewhere, or whether the hammer will overwhelm the sickle. "In a way, it's good that this churn is happening. It signals the end of status quo," says district magistrate Anil Kumar Agrawal at his Tamluk office. "The killings are, of course, very unfortunate."
Email Indrajit Hazra: ihazra @hindustantimes.com