March 14: The Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee government’s armed attempt to reclaim Nandigram ran into waves of resistance fronted by women, leading to the deaths of at least 14 people in police firing.
The police succeeded in entering Nandigram, which villagers opposed to land acquisition had turned into a no-entry zone for the administration for over two months, but left deep bloodstains on the chief minister’s industrialisation campaign.
The police action also gave Mamata Banerjee an opportunity to call a 12-hour Bengal bandh on Friday, disrupting examination schedules.
The killings drew widespread condemnation, including a grim statement from governor Gopal Krishna Gandhi that “the news has filled me with a sense of cold horror”. “What is the public purpose served by the use of force that we have witnessed today'” he asked.
A huge contingent of police, amassed over the last few days, mounted the mission to recapture Nandigram around 10 am today.
Over 1,000 policemen, split into two groups, raced towards Sonachura — the theatre of the main battle, around 170 km from Calcutta — from two flanks . A 2,000-strong reserve force stood by, waiting to move in once the advance party smashed its way though the hurdles.
However, one of the thrust arms came face to face with a wall of 400-500 women, behind whom stood around 2,000 villagers armed with spears, rods, lathis and scythes. Pipe guns, muskets and country-made pistols were also in the arsenal.
A convoy of officials and labourers with excavators, road-rollers and sandbags trailed the police. One of the objectives of the raid was to repair roads dug up by villagers, the ditch becoming a symbol of protest against land acquisition. A bomb squad and ambulances made up the rest of the caravan.
With the force advancing, a chant rose from the villagers, asking the police to “go back”.
The police, led by deputy inspector-general (Midnapore range) N. Ramesh Babu, told the villagers over the public address system to move back but were greeted by crude bombs and brickbats. Sound of shots was also heard.
Teargas shells were burst and rubber bullets fired but the villagers regrouped and surged back, this time without the chain of women shielding them.
The police then opened fire, using live ammunition.
“We found the teargas and rubber bullets had little impact on the aggressive villagers. They fled but regrouped and started firing at us. We had no alternative but to open fire,” an officer said.
Besides the fatalities, at least 75 people were injured — among them a dozen policemen.
The number of the dead fluctuated through the day — ranging from six to 20 — but there was no official word till the evening.
Chief minister Bhattacharjee reached the Assembly to make a statement, without realising that the House had adjourned five minutes ago. “Whatever I have to say, I will say it in the Assembly tomorrow,” he said later.
The onus fell on home secretary Prasad Ranjan Ray to confirm 11 deaths. Late tonight, East Midnapore district magistrate Anup Agarwal put the toll at 14 and other officials said the figure could rise.
Ward master of the Tamluk hospital, Atal Behari Jana, said 11 bodies, including that of a woman, bore bullet injuries. Most injuries were either in the stomach or chest.
“The police had to open fire in self-defence. Our force had guns not to fight the enemy but to restore peace in Nandigram,” director-general of police A.B. Vohra said.
The stated goals — regaining control of Nandigram and ensuring the return of CPM families that fled in January — were only partially met till late this evening. The police have established their writ in four of the six villages and a part of Sonachura but the CPM supporters are yet to return.
After calling the bandh, Mamata proceeded towards Nandigram but was blocked by CPM supporters. Long-distance private buses were parked diagonally on the road.