The bloodbath at Nandigram was not the first such tragedy in Left-ruled Bengal. Two years after the front came to power in 1977, the police fired on forcible settlers on Marichjhanpi island in the Sunderbans on two occasions, killing half-a-dozen people.
At the height of the Gorkhaland agitation in 1986, 16 people died when the police fired on a mob that had killed four policemen during a raid on the Kalimpong police station.
In 1993, police bullets killed 13 Congress supporters on Calcutta’s Red Road when a party procession, led by Mamata Banerjee, then in her parent party, tried to march on Writers’ Buildings. There were other cases of police action involving fewer casualties.
But Wednesday’s tragedy at Nandigram may prove to be the Left’s biggest blunder so far. Its political consequence too could be far more serious for the front and for Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee than those of the previous incidents.
First, the police action at Nandigram had far less justification — political or administrative — than the other occasions. At Marichjhanpi, several thousand refugees from Dandakaranya flocked into the tiger reserve and had to be evicted. In Darjeeling, Subash Ghisingh was leading a violent agitation for a separate Gorkhaland state. The police action on Red Road in 1993 was a response, however ham-handed, to unusual mob violence.
Nandigram, by contrast, was a hugely disproportionate, indefensible show of force by the state. True, the agitators against the proposed industrial projects there had dug up roads, killed a police officer, chased CPM supporters out of their homes and made the area out of bounds for the state machinery. Recent incidents also proved that their movement was not exactly peaceful. But the villagers had done all this to protect their land from being taken away for industry.
It is also true that no government can accept this challenge to its authority forever. But what the government did made it look like an armed offensive against the people there. Some 3,000 policemen, supervised by 50-odd senior officers, sought to force their way into the villages for the first time in three months. All this only to restore the government’s authority — and to create conditions for homeless CPM supporters to return to their homes. Did this objective justify the kind of use of force Nandigram saw on Wednesday'
Worse still, the government went ahead with its offensive with full knowledge of the possible consequences. Ever since home secretary Prasad Ranjan Roy announced on television that the police would enter Nandigram, the tension there escalated.
The police offensive began two days before the higher secondary examinations were to start and while the Assembly was in session. It is difficult to fathom what urgency prompted the government to precipitate matters to such bloody levels, especially after Bhattacharjee’s assurance to not set up industries at Nandigram if the people there did not want them. Given the mood at Nandigram, the political process did not have much of a chance of success, at least for now. But did that justify such use of force'
The Singur-Nandigram campaign has given the Left’s opponents an exceptionally emotive issue to capitalise on. The CPM’s allies and non-political Left liberals are also upset over some aspects of Bhattacharjee’s industrialisation moves. The partners will now try even harder to rein in the chief minister and his party. Even those who see plenty of economic logic in his policies would be uncomfortable with the not-so-human face of this strategy.
For all its campaigns, the CPM has not been able to change the popular perception that the government is forcing its will on the people to help big business.
Wednesday’s events at Nandigram would strengthen the perception. Worst of all, they could cast serious doubt on whether Brand Buddha, after all, is such a winning idea. Nandigram could evolve into a political challenge the CPM in Bengal has not faced in a long time. The Muslim factor there makes it more complicated for the Marxists.
Earlier challenges were from this or that political party or leader; this one has the makings of a popular movement. Political activists killed in previous cases of police firing did not evoke the same response as the deaths of farmers out to protect their land.
Bhattacharjee could not have been unaware of the political risks of his industrialisation drive. Nandigram suggests he and his party have much to learn about risk management.