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Communally cleaved Nandigram awaits Mamata-Suvendu clash

By Pradipta Narayan Tapadar
January 20, 2021 23:00 IST
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A blood-soaked Nandigram made Mamata Banerjee what she is today and underpins the hope of the combustible West Bengal leader of clinching a third straight term in office.


IMAGE:  West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee during a public rally. Photograph: WB CMO via PTI Photo

Nandigram was the springboard that catapulted her to power in politically volatile and often violent West Bengal a decade back, and there she is, invoking a battle she led and won against an iron-fisted Communist regime.

This time, however, she is up against her former Nandigram general -- the formidable Suvendu Adhikari -- who has joined the rival Bharatiya Janata Party, and declared he will quit politics if he fails to defeat Banerjee on his home turf.

It was a strife that had propelled the little known agrarian agglomeration, where characteristics of rural and urban West Bengal merged seamlessly, into national limelight.

It's a looming strife again that threatens to break its fragile peace as assembly elections approach.

The scene of one of the bloodiest and most traumatic mass movements against land acquisition by a government for industrialisation, Nandigram of today stands polarised along communal lines.

It has come a long way since the turbulent 2000s when the slogan 'Tomar naam amar naam, Nandigram, Nandigram' (your
name, my name, Nandigram, Nandigram!) suffused the agitated air, reflecting a rare social and political convergence of public opinion against 'forcible' land acquisition by the then Left Front government for setting up a Special Economic Zone.

Today, the slogan 'Jai Shri Ram' is etched firmly as graffiti on the walls of Nandigram alongside the fading 'Tomar naam amar naam, Nandigram, Nandigram'.

And the most important reason behind the heightened communal polarisation is Adhikari's decision to join the BJP and Banerjee's surprise announcement that she will contest the seat.

Banerjee's announcement on Monday left the entire East Midnapore district and adjoining areas on edge.

Both Banerjee and Adhikari were heroes of the Nandigram movement. The feisty TMC boss was its guiding spirit, while Adhikari was her general on the ground, organising mass protests against the SEZ where Indonesia's Salim group intended to set up a chemical hub.

Adhikari's father Sisir, currently a Trinamool Congress Lok Sabha member, was the convenor of the Bhumi Uchhed Pratirodh
Committee (BUPC), which comprised people from disparate political ideologies.

The TMC, the Congress, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and even disgruntled members of the Left parties -- all waged a united struggle against the government.

With the Left and the Congress pushed to the margins of West Bengal politics, a bitter and bloody political battle looms over Nandigram between Banerjee's TMC and the BJP.

Political rallies of rival parties are being attacked and people injured almost every day.

With no industries having come up since the BUPC uprising that left an unspecified number of people dead, including 14 in a police firing, Nandigram's primarily agricultural economy supplies rice, vegetables and fresh fish to adjoining areas, skirted as it is by the Ganga and Haldi rivers.

Though the peace of Nandigram was shattered by the protracted violence during 2007-11, leaving many dead in clashes between BUPC and Communist Party of India-Marxist supporters, the area was never before polarised along religious and communal lines, and the tussle was purely political.

"Nandigram has changed a lot in the last six-seven years. Earlier, all communities used to live in peace together. There were differences and violence, but all that was because of politics not religion.

"Now it all (conflict) stems from religion with majority Hindus on one side and Muslim minority on another. We never saw such a situation in the past," Rasool Kazi, a local resident, who participated in the anti-land acquisition movement, told PTI.

Bamdev Mondal of Gokulpur village in Nandigram blamed the TMC government for the communal divide.

"The TMC government went overboard with its policy of (Muslim) appeasement and that pitted one community against the other," Mondal said.

Mondal is also angry over the lack of development in the area after the anti-land acquisition movement.

"Hindus and Muslims fought hand in hand but what did we get? Except for a few new roads and to some extent the benefits of the 100 days of work a year, we got nothing.

"Only a handful of leaders and members of a particular community got all the benefits. Now the people are angry and will teach TMC a lesson," he said.

A TMC panchayat samiti member, who did not want to be named, alleged Muslims were getting preference even in student scholarships.

"The CPI-M never discriminated between people on the basis of religion. Tell me why Hindus should not go with the BJP. We cautioned the party leadership against this discrimination but nothing came of it," he said.

Sheikh Sufiyan, a BUPC veteran and East Midnapore Zilla Parishad chairman, however, insisted such claims were part of the BJP's 'disinformation campaign'.

Nandigram assembly constituency has around 70 per cent Hindus, while Muslims account for the rest, and their names give away their political preferences.

Local leaders of both the TMC and the BJP maintain the shoots of a communal divide became visible after the 2013 panchayat polls when elected Muslim members were given prominent roles in Zilla Parishads and the ruling party's district unit.

The rift widened further after the 2018 panchayat elections.

The disaffection prompted the Hindu right to assert itself with a massive Ram Navami rally in Nandigram in 2016.

Locals said many TMC workers and leaders actively participated in it.

The results were quick for all to see. The BJP, with hardly any support base in the area dominated by the TMC, bagged over 1.96 lakh votes in the 2016 byelections to Tamluk Lok Sabha seat and finished third.

In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the BJP further consolidated it position, with its candidate cinching over 5.34 lakh votes.

Dibyendu Adhikari, a younger brother of Suvendu Adhikari won both the elections. Dibyendu and the Adhikari family patriarch, Sisir Adhikari, are both TMC Lok Sabha members but had given Mamata Banerjee's Monday rally a miss.

"Nandigram is sitting on a tinderbox and only the TMC's appeasement politics is responsible for it. If you deny the majority community its rights, you will have to face the consequences," Tamluk district BJP general secretary Gour Hari Maity told a visiting PTI reporter.

A local former leader of the Congress Sabuj Pradhan, who recently joined the BJP, said sporadic communal clashes are taking place in the region for the last few weeks and things could get worse as the elections approach.

TMC's Akhil Giri, a known detractor of Suvendu Adhikari who now calls the shots in the area for the TMC, is confident that Nandigram will not lose its secular character and rally behind Banerjee.

"Suvendu and his coterie of leaders say there are around 2.12 lakh Hindu and 70,000 Muslim voters in Nandigram assembly seat. But we will defeat their communal designs. Nandigram is the epitome of secularism and will always be," he asserted.

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