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Bhangar row: Don’t punish farmers, allay their fears

Rather than branding villagers like terrorists by imposing the draconian UAPA Act, it is time the West Bengal chief minister addressed their legitimate concerns.

editorials Updated: Feb 08, 2017 18:38 IST
Hindustan Times
Mamata Banerjee,West Bengal,Bhangar
Sukur Ali Khan (extreme left), father of Mafizul Ali Khan, who was shot dead at Bhangar, walking with fellow villagers at a rally in Kolkata January 30. The UAPA has been slapped on two leaders of CPI(ML)(Red Star), an ultra Left outfit and nine villagers, including a student set to appear for higher secondary exams.(Subhankar Chakraborty/HT PHOTO)

West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee is displaying selective amnesia when it comes to land movements. The state government has imposed sections of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) against Bhangar land agitators, protesting against a power project coming up on 13.5 acres of agricultural land that the government had acquired in the South 24 Parganas district. Initially, the government told the farmers it will set up a sub-station, but it now plans to install a SF6-gas insulated power grid, claim villagers. Not just are they upset about alleged coercion to part with their farmland, they haven’t even been compensated adequately they say.

Read: The Bhangar land row shows that Mamata’s land ‘acquisition’ model has failed

The UAPA has been slapped on two leaders of CPI(ML)(Red Star), an ultra Left outfit and nine villagers, including a student set to appear for higher secondary exams. Usually, the Act is invoked against terror outfits. Sections — 16 and 18 of UAPA —relate to acts of terrorism and conspiracy and carry capital punishment as the maximum sentence. In 2015, Chattradhar Mahato, one of the faces of the Maoist movement in Lalgarh, was among the first to be convicted under UAPA in the state. As expected, rights activists are seeing the move to brand land agitators as terrorists as heavy-handed and misplaced. What is ironic is that the person wielding the hand is none other than Ms Banerjee, the pugnacious leader who took to the streets for farmers’ rights and came to power riding on her role in the anti-land acquisition movements in Singur and Nandigram in 2006 and 2007, respectively. Still, even at the height of the movements, the Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee government did not deem it fit to slap UAPA sections on the protesters.

Read: Bhangar Naxalite outfit leader surfaces in Delhi, but mystery continues

When she swept to power in 2011, Ms. Banerjee grandiosely announced her government won’t ostensibly acquire a square inch of land if villagers objected. Far from this, when the Power Grid Corporation began buying land in 2013-14 and faced resistance, local Trinamool strong-man Arabul Islam allegedly flexed muscles to coerce the villagers. Also, the villagers say a 400/220 kv power grid could be a potential source of health hazards owing to high electo-magnetic fields but the logic has cut little ice with a government.

Rather than branding villagers like terrorists, it is time Ms Banerjee addressed their legitimate concerns. That’s the minimum one can expect from a government that less than a decade ago was claiming to champion the rights of the displaced.

First Published: Feb 08, 2017 18:38 IST