Bengal’s picture-perfect villages have been home to the hammer-and-sickle for an astounding three decades, but now that the rural idyll is cracking, the Left Front is being forced to confront the sight of the three-petalled symbol of the Trinamool Congress and the sounds of rebel voices rising against its perceptible clout.
Clashes between the two sides in Nandigram, fast acquiring an international reputation for rural protest, have claimed eight lives in the last three days since the district voted here on May 7 as part of the Tamluk Lok Sabha constituency, and the tension shows no signs of abating.
What is more, the struggle over land between the peasantry and Left party cadres in this region, documented in some detail in the media since mid-March 2007, are now boiling over into several other disputes of village life.
Chakpatana village, the scene of one such confrontation on Friday night, arrives upon you almost as if by sleigh of hand. Off the beaten highway, we have been driving through picturesque villages dotted with ponds and overhanging palms, over wooden bridges shaped by hand, avoiding skittish calves and small children.
The battle zone at Nandigram, a hotspot for television tourism is 11 km away, but that must wait awhile.
At Chakpatana, a group of young women are holding Trinamool flags in their hands and some of them are very angry.
“On Friday evening, the Left party cadres fired at a group of women because they didn’t want us to work on the road to our village,” said Lakhirani Bai. “They refused to let us work saying it is not up to the village panchayat to sanction the work but up to them to decide whether or not the road is built,” she said.
In happier times, village elders who were also party supporters would have sorted out the matter. Now the village is up in arms because women have been beaten up by the cadres and some men had to be taken to the local hospital.
“The party has been used to controlling everything for 30 years. The CPI-M saara jeevan khacchhe, aikhon bolchhe orey ke debe na (the CPI-M has eaten up everything for 30 years and now says it will not give to the others),” added Geeta Ojha, an elderly matron.
The orey or ‘others’ in her statement refers to her own villagers who have turned into Trinamool supporters, ever since the now-famous clashes of March 2007 between party cadres and villagers over building a chemical hub in Nandigram, which turned this region into a seething anti-Left cauldron.
For the first time since the Left consolidated control over the countryside, through its revolutionary decision to give permanent tenancy rights to landless sharecroppers under Operation Barga in 1978, it is being challenged on this very score in these parts.
Chakpatana villagers, part of Contai constituency and neighbouring Nandigram, which falls under Tamluk constituency, have already voted on May 7 when their part of Bengal went to vote, but emotions are still riding high.
The main contest in Contai is between Communist Party of India-Marxist candidate Prasanto Pradhan and Trinamool candidate Sisir Adhikary. His son, Subhendu Adhikary, is the Trinamool candidate for the nearby Tamluk constituency in which Nandigram falls and is likely to wrest the seat from CPI-M sitting MP Lakshman Seth, who has not lost his seat since 1998.
Large parts of Bengal are being fanned by this poribortaner hawa or the ‘wind of change.’ Independent observers say the anger and resentment against the Left could translate into as many as 17 to 18 seats for the combined Opposition, out of 42 seats in the state. Both Adhikary senior and junior hope to cash in on this wave.
If this is true, and only the results on May 16 will show if it is, then the anti-Left vote will breach the historic peak of 16 seats that the Opposition (then the Congress party) won in 1984, as part of the historic Congress sweep after Indira Gandhi’s assassination.
The Left is so shaken in its stronghold that for the first time ever, the party demanded a re-poll in 58 polling booths in Tamluk, which voted on May 7. The petition is pending in front of the Election Commission in Delhi.
Ironically, the battle for Bengal is being fought on the very fields where the Left Front, then led by Jyoti Basu after its victory in 1977, unleashed a rural revolution of sorts under Operation Barga, when 1.3 million hectares of land was taken away from the jotedars or landlords and distributed between 1.5 million people.
In this massive exercise between 1978 and 1984, the bargadars or share-croppers controlled the produce from the land, although ownership still didn’t pass on. Significantly, poverty statistics have dropped from 61 per cent in 1977 to just over 31 per cent in 1999.
But Amiya Chaudhuri, a senior fellow with the Maulana Azad Institute of Asian Studies in Kolkata, argues that ever since, party cadres in villages have amassed such clout and even wealth that they have begun to antagonise the very people they once promised to serve.
“This is the end of Operation Bargadar,” Chaudhuri said, “instead of explaining and debating and telling the people that the land cannot be productive for much longer because it has been divided and sub-divided over the years, the Left party cadres decided that it is much easier to use force. But now the people want change. They feel the party should be knocked out.”
By now, of course, the Nandigram legend is well-known: When villagers refused to accept compensation for 14,000 acres of land that West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya had promised to the Indonesian Salim group to build a chemical hub, party cadres in police uniform aimed fire at the protesters in March 2007, killing 14 people.
But Suranjan Das, the vice-chancellor of the prestigious Calcutta University, India’s first-ever university built in 1857, defends the government’s decision. “Operation Barga helped to revive the rural economy and generate unheard-of internal demand. With rising expectations, the prosperity from agriculture was simply not enough. Industrialisation has to be the next step,” he said.
“Unfortunately,” he added, “politics intervened and the entire spirit of negotiations between the Left and the Trinamool-led Opposition was ruined. The media played a very important role. If the media had played a better role and portrayed the message of the government in the right manner, this confrontation may not have ensued.”
Chief Minister Bhattacharjee, realising the enormity of the damage the land protests had caused, recently admitted that the party would have to seriously ‘address the problems’ of rural Bengal.
But Chaudhuri points out that rural prosperity is already a myth in large parts of Bengal. That the districts of Birbhum, Purulia, Bankura, West Midnapore and East Midnapore (in which Nandigram falls) are hugely impoverished and part of the 4,000-odd most backward villages in the state.
So is the tide turning in this part of Bengal?
I stop an elderly man walking in his langot in Boyal village, just beyond Chakpatana. “We will see, when the ballot boxes open on May 16,” he answers mysteriously. Then he leans towards me and smiles, opening a mouth full of paan-rotted teeth, “It is true, Trinamool has a chance.”
In this election, Nandigram may have just helped dislodge the hammer-and-sickle from large parts of the state.