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Lost in hail of fire
- Surprised Buddha stands by recapture

Calcutta, March 15: Caught in the biggest crisis of his career, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee today defended the police firing in Nandigram but conceded that “we could not comprehend the scale of the agitation”.

The chief minister came under attack in Parliament, in the Assembly and within his own front — the concerns of the allies were shared by Jyoti Basu, too. However, Bhattacharjee made it clear that police would not retreat from Nandigram.

“Some people died and that’s unfortunate,” the chief minister told the Assembly as the Opposition rose in protest, but “the rule of law had to be established”.

“We knew that there would be protests but could not comprehend the scale of the agitation,” he added.

Later in the evening, the allies formally asked the government to withdraw the huge police contingent but the chief minister did not speak at the acrimonious meeting where at least three disgruntled partners threatened to leave unless the CPM ended the “one-party rule”. The Left Front meeting will resume on Saturday, when the chief minister is expected to respond.

Despite Basu reportedly echoing the allies’ sentiments that the “CPM cannot win elections alone”, the leadership appeared to be standing by Bhattacharjee, who referred in his Assembly address to the plight of party workers driven out of Nandigram in January.

The CPM will discuss the firing at a three-day session of its politburo and central committee in Delhi beginning on March 31.

In Parliament, his party blocked a discussion shouting that Nandigram was a law and order problem, which is a state subject — in 2002, the BJP had used the same argument to prevent a debate on the Gujarat riots and shield poster boy Narendra Modi.

Bhattacharjee briefed Prime Minister Manmohan Singh this evening. “A report on yesterday’s incident is being sent to the Union government,” he said, adding that he had also spoken to home minister Shivraj Patil and the ministers from Bengal, Pranab Mukherjee and Priya Ranjan Das Munshi.

“Nandigram is part of Bengal and cannot be treated as an isolated, liberated zone. More than 2,500 workers of our party have been staying in camps for two-and-a-half months,” the chief minister said.

“Many vegetable vendors could not sell their produce. How can this be tolerated' The state administration waited for a long time,” he told the Assembly.

Sources in the CPM echoed him, arguing that the government had waited for more than two months since the villagers shut out the administration from Nandigram on January 3. How much longer could it wait'

In neighbouring Orissa, facing a similar land protest in Kalinganagar, Naveen Patnaik waited for more than a year. A highway blockade continued from January last year to last week, when the court intervened to have it lifted.

In Bengal, too, the high court has stepped in, but to rap the government on its knuckles and order a CBI inquiry into the police firing. “I was preparing to order a judicial inquiry. However, the high court has asked for a CBI probe and I am accepting that,” Bhattacharjee said.

More embarrassment was in store when the RSP’s Nirmal Das and the CPI’s Indrajit Tangi, both allies, refused to participate in discussions in the Assembly.

The Opposition was vocal in its protest. “The chief minister is a murderer and he has no moral right to be in power,” leader of the Opposition Partha Chatterjee shouted, leading a walkout by Trinamul Congress. The Congress followed.

But Bhattacharjee did not flinch. “The police did not have any option but to resort to firing as the mob went berserk and attacked them with bombs and pipeguns,” he said.

The chief minister said — and the CPM echoed him — that “the district administration had requested all parties to evolve a consensus. But Trinamul and Congress did not co-operate. So we decided that action will have to be taken and our home secretary had publicly announced that police would enter Nandigram”.

What they did not say was that while the CPM did go through the motions expected of a ruling party, its famed political machinery and ground-level efforts at reconciliation were absent. The party will argue this was because its supporters had been forced to flee Nandigram.

Had it waited any longer, the displaced workers — about 600 families have been driven out — would have taken matters into their hands, leading to a repeat of Keshpur where casualties would have been much higher, the CPM is saying. The argument could hold for another party, but it is common knowledge that if the CPM wants, it can rein in any worker.

“Roads were dug up and culverts broken. I had repeatedly said that land will not be acquired in Nandigram if people don’t want it,” Bhattacharjee said. “We knew arms had been stockpiled.”

The CPM too is suggesting that stockpiling of arms by Maoists necessitated urgent action.

“Can Bengal lose the opportunity of getting Rs 60,000 crore in investments' For this, we need only 1 lakh acres of the 135 lakh acres of agricultural land. We must move forward,” Bhattacharjee said.

He was optimistic, too: “The situation in Nandigram will normalise within a few days.”

But would he visit Nandigram' “Let’s see.”

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