One person was killed and several others were injured on Tuesday after thousands of villagers protesting against a power grid project clashed with police in South 24 Parganas district’s Bhangar, bringing back memories of the agitations in Singur and Nandigram.
The incident assumes political significance as a slogan popularised by Mamata Banerjee between 2006 and 2008 – Tomar naam, amar naam/ Singur, Bhangar, Nandigram (Our struggles in Singur, Bhangar, Nandigram unite us) – seemed to boomerang on her.
During the Left regime, too, there was an attempt to acquire land in Bhangar but the government retreated in the face of fierce protests in Singur and Nandigram led by Banerjee, then the opposition leader.
On the day residents of more than half a dozen villages took on the police and blocked arterial roads, chief minister Banerjee sent political leaders such as Rajya Sabha MP Mukul Roy and minister Abdur Rezzak Mollah to talk to the agitators, who demanded the cancellation of the project.
The project, undertaken by Powergrid Corporation of India, is nearing completion on a 16-acre plot that was acquired a couple of years ago. Apart from cancellation of the project, villagers also objected to high-tension lines passing over their land. They apprehended the strong electromagnetic field created by the power lines.
The situation was tense in the villages from Monday evening, when the police picked up two activists, only to release them after an hour under instructions from top officials at the state secretariat. The two leaders were released at night after thousands of villagers had taken to the streets.
In the morning, the irate villagers vandalised several police vehicles and set at least three buses on fire. They also pushed police vans in a local tank. They uprooted trees, blocked roads with the trunks and hurled brickbats at the police for hours.
The man who was killed in the firing was identified as Mofijul Khan. “Supporters of Arabul Islam (a local TMC leader) shot my brother,” alleged the brother of Khan. Villagers claimed four people received bullet injuries.
Another man, Alam Mollah, who received bullet injuries, was also taken to RG Kar Hospital in Kolkata.
“Work on the project stands suspended,” power minister Sovandeb Chatterjee told HT. On Tuesday evening, the project area was found empty as all personnel had left the site.
Sharmistha Chowdhury, one of the leaders of the movement, said the villagers gathered at the site after a huge contingent of police entered the villages of Khamar Ait, Nutanhaat and Machhibhanga to make arrests and indiscriminate lathicharge.
“As the police tried to disperse the gathering by firing tear gas shells and rubber bullets, the situation went out of control,” said Chowdhury.
The villages in Bhangar were tense even around 9pm with residents gathering at all the crossings and tea stalls. “We will not allow the police to enter the villages on Wednesday,” said a villager, with the protesters calling a rally at the College Square in North Kolkata.
The movement is spearheaded by Jomi, Jibika, Poribesh O Bastutantra Raksha Committee (Committee to protect Land, Livelihood, Environment and Ecosystem) by a little-known Naxalite outfit, CPI(ML)(Red Star).
The CPI-M came out in support of the farmers at Bhangar and threatened to hit the streets if police forces were not withdrawn. “The police acted on the orders from the chief minister who herself had organised movements against land acquisition during the Left regime. But now she is busy organising global business summits,” said CPI-M state secretariat member Md Salim.
He criticised minister and local MLA Abdur Rezzak Moollah, who was land reforms minister during Left regime, saying: “Bhangar’s uncrowned king was sitting silently while tension was building up.”
“Those creating disturbances are against development,” said Trinamool Congress vice-president and Rajya Sabha MP, Mukul Roy. Ironically, their statements seemed to echo what top CPI(M) leaders used to say when agitations broke out in Singur and Nandigram.
The government, caught unawares by the energy of the movement, decided to adopt a two-pronged strategy – to withdraw police from the villages to let the situation normalise and to build pressure on the leaders of the movement by branding them as ‘anti-development’.
“We are against land being taken away forcibly for any project,” said state Congress president Adhir Chowdhury.