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Nandigram: Six Months Later

The findings of a people's tribunal in Nandigram point to the fact that relief, rehabilitation and justice are yet to be provided to the victims of the Nandigram police firing on March 14.

Nandigram: Six Months Later

The findings of a people’s tribunal in Nandigram point to the fact that relief, rehabilitation and justice are yet to be provided to the victims of the Nandigram police firing on March 14.

DIPANJAN RAI CHAUDHURI, SATYA SIVARAMAN

A
recently released report of the people’s tribunal on Nandigram has described the police firing and killings of March 14 in Nandigram as nothing less than a “state sponsored massacre”. And yet six months later the beleaguered people of Nandigram still live in a state of siege with no signs of relief, peace or justice in the near future. While they have been victorious in their battle against state attempts to take over their land for a chemical hub, they continue to be subjected to systematic “punishment” by the Left Front government for their defiance. Apart from facing attacks on an almost daily basis by CPI(M) cadre from their neighbouring stronghold of Khejuri, the people of Nandigram are coping with loss of livelihoods, severe trauma and injuries from the March 14 incident. On their part, the Left Front government and the main ruling party CPI(M) have just shrugged off the massacre as if nothing had happened.

Revisiting March 14

Part of the CPI(M) strategy all along has been to cast doubts on what really happened in Nandigram on March 14, with some of its leaders referring to it as a “clash” between police and protestors opposed to the land acquisition. It is even implied that some of the 14 people officially declared as killed in the police action may have died due to violence indulged in by a section of the Nandigram villagers themselves. The report of the people’s tribunal, headed by justice S N Bhargava, a former chief justice of the Sikkim High Court however finds, “There was unprovoked, indiscriminate firing without sufficient warning and without following the established procedure in accordance with law against a peaceful, religious and lawful gathering of mostly women and children from Nandigram”. The report names 14 people, including two women, who were killed by the police, and one person who is missing. Further, it describes the unsavoury collusion between the government agencies and the ruling CPI(M) party, thus:

The motive behind this massacre seems to be the ruling party’s wish to “teach alesson” to poor villagers in Nandigramby terrorising them for opposing theproposed Special Economic Zone (SEZ)project.

The 5-member tribunal, which was organised by a national initiative of concerned citizens and included well known journalists, social activists, and doctors received 194 depositions from villagers and civil society organisations during its hearings in Nandigram and Kolkata from May 26-28. Of these seven written depositions claimed victims of the firing by police and CPI(M) cadre had bullet injuries on the upper part of the body. Two claimed witnessing two people being shot in the chest, and one alleged that she saw a relative of hers shot in the back. According to the day-sheet at Nandigram health centre on March 14, four persons were brought dead with bullet injuries in the head or the abdomen. Many deponents

Economic and Political Weekly October 13, 2007 mention that there was no parleying before start of the assault and they were falling back and running away while the police kept on firing. The tribunal concludes: “The lack of parleying seems to suggest that the carnage caused by police firing on the retreating mass, mainly of women and children, was pre-planned. The depositions also clearly bring out that police went on firing after the people started to flee and that they were not firing towards the legs.”

The report cites one deposition which mentions stone throwing by youngsters, but is unequivocal in concluding that “There is no evidence of the carriage of any arms by the villagers”. More than 50 depositions allege violence, including firing, lathi charge and sexual violence, by alleged CPI(M) cadre – some dressed in police uniform but wearing slippers and others with black masks or white veils to hide their faces. Some deponents could identify and name the CPI(M) cadre among them. The involvement of non-police persons in the violence is seen in the stab injury in the chest of one of the persons brought dead to the Nandigram health centre, and also in the reported use of sophisticated arms like SLRs, not issued to the police forces.

The report goes on to state starkly: “Children were not spared. Fracture cases due to police lathi charge have been treated by doctors. The rape of a 12-year old girl by a named CPI(M) cadre has the mother and sister as eyewitnesses. There are persistent reports of cruelty on very young children by the policemen.” A medical camp set up by a collective of independent doctors identified nine child victims. A doctor described two of the injuries examined by him to be “brutal”.

Administrative Indifference

Shockingly, till date, not a single family of the 14 people killed in March have received even ex gratia payment leave alone full compensation. No relief has been provided to those wounded in the police firing and unable to pay for their treatment or resume work of any kind. Though in June this year the Left Front government hinted at the possibility of offering compensation, a central committee member of the CPI(M) has gone on record to oppose such a move as he did not consider the Nandigram struggle to retain land “to be a democratic movement”. All this is in stark contrast to the way the CPI(M) rightly demanded and got compensation for its activists killed in police firings in Khammam from the Andhra Pradesh government.

The West Bengal government has also not cooperated at all in attempts to trace Subrato Samanta who is missing since March 14 and is alleged to have been shot by many eyewitness accounts. Given the brazen partisanship of the state administration and its own involvement in the March 14 massacre, it is also not surprising that no charges have been filed against policemen or CPI(M) cadre implicated in the killings or the numerous cases of rape and sexual abuse of women from Nandigram on that day.

The Left Front government on the other hand has in fact tried to protect all those implicated by a team of CBI investigators, who on March 17, 2007 arrested 10 persons with illegal arms and ammunition in their possession from the Janani Brickfields, within the disturbed area. A case was started against the 10, who were clearly there at the service of the ruling

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Economic and Political Weekly October 13, 2007

party, under the Arms Act and the Criminal Conspiracy Act. The local police however did not file a charge sheet within the statutorily required 90 days, and the miscreants obtained bail. It must also be mentioned that the report of the executive inquiry conducted by Balbir Ram, Commissioner, Burdwan Division at the behest of the West Bengal government has also not been made public.

Further, not a single minister of the Left Front government, no front rank leader of the main ruling party, no top level official from the administration has so far visited the affected people of Nandigram, not even just to listen to their complaints.

Recently the veteran CPI(M) leader Jyoti Basu remarked that “It seems as if Nandigram does not belong to Bengal anymore and has become a liberated zone”. The truth is that Nandigram has become “enemy territory” for the CPI(M) and its people aliens to be routed and subjugated to the diktats of their party.

Sexual Abuse

One of the most serious charges levelled against the police and CPI(M) cadre involved in the March 14 violence in Nandigram was widespread rape and sexual abuse of women. The tribunal report says, “There were a disturbingly large number of incidents of sexual violence by both police and armed ruling party cadre against women, many of them carried out in the most cruel, degrading and inhuman manner”.

More than 20 depositions before the tribunal alleged sexual violence. A woman and her married daughter allege rape, and also name CPI(M) cadre as assailants. The youngest daughter, a minor, was also raped before them. There is another deponent who makes a clear accusation of rape, and three other depositions which do not use the term but whose experience on March 14 clearly point to rape.

Other cases of sexual violence include insertion of rods into the sex organ, and scratching and biting in the breast and pelvic regions. The report says: “Sexual violence and the threat thereof were used as intimidation by CPI(M) cadre who are quoted by Nandigram villagers as taunting them with ‘Tell your women we are coming’”. No official body, like the West Bengal commission for women, has so far taken any steps to record and investigate the charges voiced by the sexually abused women. On the other hand, Lakshman Seth, the CPI(M) MP from Tamluk and the main force behind the land acquisition move, went on record with a statement that the those women who did dare to claim rape or sexual abuse were all lying because “no woman subjected to sexual violation would talk publicly about it”.

Lack of Medical Facilities

The government has also not taken any steps so far to arrange for adequate medical attention to the affected people although their plight was thrust into public knowledge again and again.

The carnage of March 14 was a one-day affair, though the violations continued for two days. But health problems still dog the victims, gunshot injuries, lathi charge injuries, falls and fractures, tear gas generated burns and ocular problems, psychological trauma all require attention and treatment. But, the facilities at the Nandigram health centre and the Tamluk hospital are woefully inadequate. The government refuses to take the responsibility of ensuring proper treatment for the victims, and NGO help is all that reaches them. Also, there is evidence now that many of the medical discharge certificates of victims of the March 14 violence were manipulated. The SSKM government hospital in Kolkata, where several of the injured were taken to, referred to what was clearly a bullet injury in one case as being due to “a metallic foreign body”. About the SSKM hospital the people’s tribunal report observes:

The doctors and the administration refused to give any information and, on insistence, advised the protestor to go to court. Discharge certificates were incomplete. Type of injury (bullet injury, head injury, fracture, etc) was not clearly mentioned. Police case number was not given. The aim was to underrate severity of the injury and obstruct legal action.

The doctors of the government health service, too, stand charged by deponents before the tribunal with unethical behaviour, ranging from fear, leading to a reluctance in recording the evidence of police atrocities, to partisanship exemplified by falsification of dates of discharge of victims.

Prospects of Peace

The people’s tribunal report also points out the reasons why negotiations between the government and the people of Nandigram or between the supporters of the CPI(M) and the Bhoomi Uchched Pratirodh Committee (BUPC), which is leading the anti-land acquisition struggle have failed to make any headway so far.

One is the clear partisan attitude of the state administration, especially the police. As the report notes, “Despite lodging of complaints by various members of the BUPC, no step was taken by the police personnel on the basis of the said complaints and there was no arrest of the miscreants who are members of the CPI(M)”.

Secondly the report notes, “As of writing this report in August 2007 regular firing and terrorising of villagers in Nandigram by CPI(M) cadre based in Khejuri and counter-violence by members of the BUPC was still continuing on an almost daily basis”, and refers to 21 such armed incursions into Nandigram fom Khejuri, brought to the notice of the tribunal.

Thirdly the report says that there is no agreement yet over how to work out the return of supporters of the CPI(M), hailing from Nandigram, who have been living with their families in camps on the Khejuri side due to alleged intimidation by BUPC members. The CPI(M) have claimed that there were thousands of such displaced people, while the maximum number of such cases conceded by BUPC is 250.

School students in the area have been severely affected by the ongoing violence. Some schools have been made into police camps, and there is little security for school goers in the daily exchange of fire. The report quotes one deposition by a NGO working among the children in both Nandigram and Khejuri:

Maheshpur high school (763 on the rolls) found 80 per cent absent after March 14. Those who were coming were tense and fearful. The annual examinations were postponed twice. Still, many could not appear, and were subsequently examined orally and half-yearly results also taken account of to decide (their) promotion. Teachers felt that 70 per cent of examinees were affected by the unrest. Gokulnagar high school is a police camp. Policemen occupy 11 out of 22 classrooms. The school has been forced to open two shifts. Science practical classes are taken in the open ground as policemen occupy the labs. .... Lessons are disturbed and girl students are uncomfortable.... the toilets give off a stench. There is scarcity of water because so many are consuming it.

Economic and Political Weekly October 13, 2007

It may be mentioned that agitating students finally forced the police to vacate the Gokulnagar high school in July.

The Way Out of the Mess

Among its recommendations, the people’s tribunal has suggested:

  • the continuation of the CBI inquiry into the incidents at Nandigram with a speedy conclusion thereof, placing special emphasis on inquiry into the specific roles and culpability of different officials in the administration, in the events of March 14;
  • re-arrest of the 10 CPI(M) cadre, caught red-handed with illegal arms, by the CBI, and subsequently bailed out due to deliberate negligence of the state police;
  • setting up a special bench, headed by a woman judge, to hear the complaints of violence against women;
  • setting up “monitoring committees” by the Calcutta High Court to ensure peacekeeping in such areas like Nandigram where violent incidents continue to date and;
  • identification and prosecution of the CPI(M) cadre who impersonated policemen on March 14.
  • The tribunal has also called for the involvement of the national human rights commission in working out ex gratia relief to the families of those who have been killed and two persons injured in the police action. It has asked the West Bengal government to provide compensation and damages for injury and loss of life and property to victims of the March 14 violence, on par with that paid in the case of the police person killed in Nandigram on February 7, 2007, as part of an earlier incident.

    Referring to the CPI(M) supporters living as refugees in the camps at Khejuri, the tribunal report observes that the peace process must allow the return and resettlement of all Nandigram residents, irrespective of their party affiliations barring those few accused of direct involvement in the heinous crimes of March 14-16. An independent body trusted by both the people of Nandigram and the refugees should monitor the return it said.

    Grounds for Optimism

    The only ray of hope in all these months has been the response of the governor of West Bengal, Gopal Krishna Gandhi, who immediately after the March 14 massacre issued a statement that said “the news of deaths by police firing in Nandigram this morning has filled me with a sense of cold horror”.

    Following this the high court at Kolkata suo motu initiated a public interest litigation through an order which said, “Prima facie we are satisfied that this action of the police department is wholly unconstitutional and cannot be justified under any provision of law”, and called for a special inquiry into the incident by the central bureau of investigation (CBI). In August, the high court also concluded hearings of a class action suit (among several others still pending) filed by the West Bengal bar association against the police action of March 14 and a judgment is still awaited. The people’s tribunal report notes approvingly the role of civil society in West Bengal in the aftermath of Singur and Nandigram: “There were huge spontaneous protest rallies and meetings in Kolkata and district towns as civil society initiatives. Students, teachers, doctors, lawyers, office workers, science club organisers, scientists, artistes, writers, dramatists, singers – all staged protest marches and meetings and also raised donations to organise relief and rehabilitation works.”

    Had civil society not erupted as it did, the West Bengal government would not have budged from its plan of imposing a chemical hub on Nandigram, drowning all protests in blood and tears. Hopefully, they will continue to play the role of defending the human rights of ordinary people in the face of state aggression and authoritarian behaviour.

    EPW

    Email: satyasagar@gmail.com

    Economic and Political Weekly October 13, 2007

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