| A CPM flag flutters in Khejuri, which adjoins Nandigram. Picture by Amit Datta
Don’t bother telling Khokan Sheet and his two brothers that the government has decided not to acquire land in Nandigram.
“We will fight to our death,” says the 30-something Khokan, a member of the Bhoomi Uchchhed Pratirodh Committee, whose family owns a seven-bigha plot in Sonachura.
Khokan’s arm is in a sling — a reminder of the March 14 police firing that killed at least 14 land protesters and injured scores — but his eyes burn with anger.
“We have nothing to lose. They have spilled our blood; we will not rest till we spill theirs.”
Villages like Sonachura and Garchakraberia offer a case study in how the “people’s party”, famed for its agitprop machinery and slogan savvy, lost the propaganda war in Nandigram.
It’s almost a week since the government notified through the East Midnapore administration that land would not be acquired for industry in Nandigram, but the villagers say it’s hogwash. They point out that the notice doesn’t say “not ever”.
“The notice is a fake. Why does it not carry the chief minister’s signature' It proves he doesn’t mean it,” says Trinamul Congress block secretary Sheikh Sufiyan.
Yet Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee had twice — on February 4 in Krishnagar and on March 11 at a farmers’ rally — announced that land would not be acquired in Nandigram if its people didn’t want it.
So why did the CPM and the government fail to publicise this well enough among Nandigram’s villagers'
One reason could be that there were few left to do the publicising. By the time Bhattacharjee came out with his clarifications, many local party leaders and supporters had been forced to flee their homes by anti-acquisition villagers.
Some CPM leaders, though, indirectly admit that the party, legendary for its ability to network with the people and mobilise them, had misread the public mood.
“The local leadership faltered,” a CPM leader said. “We had had (too much) confidence in the people of Nandigram.”
“We never thought Nandigram capable of such violence. It was always a peace-loving place,” said another.
The CPM may have been complacent because it held six of the 10 gram panchayats in Nandigram I, the block where the land was to be acquired, while Trinamul held three and the CPI, one.
When the party carried out an awareness drive, it had nothing of the verve of the “popular movement” that had enabled the state to build the Bakreswar power plant two decades ago.
Five days after Citu’s nation-wide industrial strike on December 14, the CPM organised a march of 6,000 people from Nandigram, demanding industrialisation.
“We had a charter of 25 demands, including adequate compensation, job opportunities for at least one member of each affected family, and equal consideration for the land owner and the bargadar (share-cropper),” says Guriya.
The CPM distributed glossy, multicolour pamphlets that called for industry, plugging Haldia Petrochemicals as a model. But instead of catchy slogans, the party had only dry statistics to offer in a message that sounded like a government handout.
“The number of ancillary units of Haldia Petrochem has gone up to 773. It has led to the employment of two lakh and four thousand people,” the pamphlets said.
“Indian and foreign investors are lining up. Electricity, roads, bridges, modern telecommunications, satellite link, optical fibre cable network, numerous advanced learning institutes are creating skilled, advanced human resources… there has been rapid progress in every field.”
In the 1980s, when the Centre refused to cough up money for Bakreswar, the CPM had gone to the people with the slogan: “Rokto diye Bakreswar gorbo (we shall build Bakreswar with our blood).”
Tens of thousands had responded to the appeal, thronging to CPM blood donation camps that were mushrooming everywhere. The party is believed to have raised the funds by selling the blood.
In Nandigram, the Opposition’s programmes showed more dynamism. CPM leaders accuse the Trinamul, Jamait-Ulema-i-Hind, Congress and SUCI – who formed the Pratirodh Committee -- of misleading and inciting the villagers and inviting the Maoists.
“December 7 hawa toiri hoi (the atmosphere was created on December 7),” said Ashok Guriya, East Midnapore secretary of Krishak Sabha, the CPM farmers’ wing.
On that day, social activist Medha Patkar and Jamait general secretary Siddiqullah Chowdhury visited Kendamari, Garchakraberia and Sonachura. Guriya claimed that the Maoists used the opportunity to smuggle in arms.
He admitted, though, that the ground was being prepared for a long time under the party’s nose. The party didn’t pay much heed, either, when Trinamul held a march three days later in Garchakraberia.
“They also incited the women. Jamait had begun making announcements in mosques for ‘Muslim bhais’ to unite against the government,” Guriya said.
“They (the Opposition) spread rumours,” added Sridam Dam, secretary, Nandigram Krishak Sabha.
More than 80 per cent of the villagers are literate, but the Trinamul and Jamait were in a position by now to interpret every report in the newspapers or television, or every action of the CPM and the government.
CPM leaders cite the example of the January 3 clash, where the first police firing allegedly took place.
“They led the villagers to believe that a meeting on sanitation, at Kalicharanpur gram panchayat, was actually a meeting to start land acquisition,” says Joydeb Paik, a CPM leader driven out of his village.
On January 5, the Pratirodh Committee was formed. Within days, roads had been dug up, culverts destroyed and CPM supporters driven away, and swathes of Nandigram had cut themselves off from the CPM’s direct influence.