Bhangar land agitators to contest rural polls, opposition leaders rally around them
The villagers will choose their representatives to contest the 2018 panchayat polls in the area.kolkata Updated: Nov 06, 2017 17:03 IST
On October 29, about 30 km from Kolkata, under a huge canopy in Machibhanga village under which about 1,600 villagers – males, homemakers and the aged – listened with rapt attention, speakers took the podium one by one and lambasted the Mamata Banerjee government on how it is helping a power substation to come up endangering human health and crops. Under the banner of Jami, Jibika, Poribesh O Bastutantra Raksha Committee (Committee to secure Land, Livelihood, Environment and Ecosystem), the speakers also dwelt at length on how the ruling party used strong arm tactics to suppress dissenting voices in the area.
From October 15 till 27, a series conferences took place in 16 neighbouring villages to form branches of the committee, JJPBRC. Each of these branches have between 40 and 125 members, who would look after the general affairs of the village. “The committee comprising villagers would access and approve any development project the panchayat, or the government, may take up. It will also monitor progress of government schemes and probe corruption,” said Mirza Hasan, convener of JJPBRC, who is facing charges of murder and offences under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.
Incidentally, the pradhan of the Polerhat II gram, Hakimul Islam, who is also the son of influential former Trinamool Congress MLA Arabul Islam, can’t enter many of the 16 villages.
Led by CPI(ML)(Red Star), a little-known Naxalite group, the increasing group of villagers have even decided to contest the 2018 rural polls in the state. The polls are of significance since it will be a rehearsal for the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
Significantly, the circle of resistance has been expanding. Initially, the residents of two villages began protesting a power substation in October 2016. Now the number of villages participating in the protest has risen to 16.
“Bhangar is emerging as a model of resistance to the ruling party’s politics of muscle power. The movement withstood all sorts of coercive tactics for about a year and can inspire similar resistance elsewhere in the state,” said leader of the opposition in Bengal Assembly and veteran Congressman Abdul Mannan, who visited the area several times.
“The Bhangar movement covers only one gram panchayat area and parts of another. However, it stands as an example that the ruling party’s muscle power can be resisted with people’s united effort. The movement is inspiring people of the neighbouring areas to take the ruling party head-on,” said Samik Lahiri, CPI(M)’s South 24-Parganas district committee secretary.
Over the past eight months, Bhangar agitators saw a number of prominent faces – from rights activist Binayak Sen and politician Yogendra Yadav to CPI(M)’s top peasant leaders Hannan Mollah and Biju Krishnan – visit the area and express solidarity.
All major opposition leaders from Bengal Congress president Adhir Chowdhury to CPI(M) politburo members Suryakanta Mishra, Biman Basu held meetings in the area in support of the movement. A number CPI(M) and Congress supporters, who fled their homes in the face of atrocities from the ruling party, have come back over the past seven-eight months.
The administration has asked the police to stay away from the villages. The key leader of the agitators, Alik Chakraborty, is moving around quite freely in the area despite being charged under anti-terror UA(P)A by the police. “The movement is no longer only against the power project. It’s against the ruling party’s corruption and subjugation of dissenting voices. The people will take over the panchayat from Trinamool Congress this time,” Chakraborty, a politburo member of CPI(ML)(Red Star), told this correspondent sipping tea at a roadside tea stall.
The committee will decide who will contest. They have to fight as independents.
A visit to the area revealed that there are hardly any posters, or wall graffiti of the ruling party. “A year ago there was no graffiti, flags and posters offering resistance to the ruling party. Now it is difficult to spot the presence of the ruling party,” said Mansoor Kazi, a septuagenarian grocer of Puddapukur village.
Even 10 months after the clash between police and villagers on January 17, in which two local youths were killed by bullets, ruling party leaders cannot enter some villages that were the epicenter of resistance. In some villages, Trinamool leaders are organising small meetings but mainly with people brought from outside.
Ruling party leaders are distinctly uncomfortable to speak about Bhangar, and most won’t comment in view of the sensitivity of the issue. “We have been asked by the party’s top leadership to avoid confrontation with the agitators. We’ll be going slow,” said Kaiser Ahmed, a Trinamool Congress leader of South 24-Parganas district and also a member of the zilla parishad (district council).
“Some Naxalites are trying to fish in troubled waters. They are trying to terrorise the villagers, who are with us. The Naxalites won’t be able to gain anything eventually,” alleged Arabul Islam, former MLA and the most controversial local Trinamool face of the district of South 24 Parganas.
Some villagers point out to similarities of the area with Singur. “The entire area is very fertile and the plots yield more than one crop. The high tension lines would certainly affect the crops,” said Mirza Hasan, JJPBRC convenor.
Over the past 10 months, the state government has tried most measures to quell the resistance. The chief minister assured the villagers that a power distribution project they were objecting to will not be completed if the locals have objection to it. “The agitators are misleading the villagers. The project has no health hazards, experts have assured us. The villagers have to decide whether they want stable power, or fluctuating supply that would also damage electrical and electronic gadgets,” said Mamata Banerjee in public meetings.
When it failed to assuage their grievances, in September they brought in scientists and engineers to convince the agitators that the project did not pose any threat to the health of the villagers and crops on the land over which the ultra-high tension lines passed.
In the three months following the clash, the ruling party also fielded environment minister Sovan Chatterjee, food processing minister and MLA Rezzak Mollah, and Salt Lake mayor Sabyasachi Dutta to hold public rallies in the area. The administration filed FIRs against more than 100 villagers and even slapped UA(P) sections against about a dozen leaders of the movement and arrested two of them. But they had to be released after a Calcutta high court.
In May ruling party workers imposed a virtual economic blockade in the region, preventing essential commodities and foodstuff to enter the region. Moreover, as soon as those involved in the January clash on came out of the area, they were picked up by the police.
“I have nothing to add on the safety of the project after what the chief minister said. We are always open to discussion and dialogue to allay unfounded fears about the projects,” Bengal power minister Sovandeb Chatterjee told HT.
The agitation has gained support from human rights groups and all opposition parties except BJP (that does not want to extend support to a Naxalite force). It is also gradually getting the shape of a larger movement against local Trinamool leaders’ alleged links with land mafia.
Significantly, all this is taking place against the backdrop of TMC sweeping the three-tier panchayat election in Bhangar II community development block in 2013. The opposition parties failed to field candidates in most of the seats. Even in those that were contested the ruling party secured 80% to 90% of the votes. June 2011 and December 2016, there was no office of any opposition party in the entire area.