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Will the ghost of Bhangar’s land acquisition spook TMC’s glamour quotient in high profile Jadavpur seat?

BHANGAR, KOLKATA: “That’s where they were planning to build an octopus of wires,” says Salim Shiekh, a first-time voter at Khamarait in Bhangar, pointing towards the power transmission towers that were to crisscross the multi-crop farm plots carrying electricity to parts of South Bengal and Bihar. “Our fields were taken away, crops were suffering… We have forced them to go underground,” he adds with an unmistakable sense of pride in his voice.

The wires may have indeed disappeared for now after high voltage resistance from over a dozen villages for close to three years forced the Mamata Banerjee government to backtrack on a Power Grid transmission project, but even today, scratch the surface and the fault lines appear among the poorest who feel betrayed by their chief minister who herself fought a crusade against the Left over land and won.

“I have never ever seen such animosity, terror and violence in the 30 years of my life of the kind I have witnessed in the last three,” says Mushirul Hasan from the adjoining Machhi Bhanga village. “It has been a reign of terror unleashed by Trinamool Congress goons who were hell bent to snatch our land.”

Just 30 km from Kolkata, Bhangar, part of the Jadavpur Lok Sabha Constituency, has been the new Singur. And Banerjee has been on the other side of this bloody agitation.

Ten years ago, she had championed the cause of the downtrodden, making forcible land acquisition for industry a major national political issue, and stormed to power in West Bengal riding high on her protests against Tata Motors’ Nano car project in Singur. But the simmering tensions in Bhangar for over three years that has seen severe police brutality, lathi charges, tear gas shelling, even firings that took the lives of at least four villagers and several arrests of protestors, now serves a grim reminder of the agitations against land acquisition in Singur, Nandigram and Lalgargh —the political cul-de-sac of voter apathy from which her Communist predecessors could never emerge. After the riots that lasted over two weeks and left several dead, the villagers of Bhangar also retaliated much the same way by blocking highways with uprooted tree trunks, setting police vans of fire, pelting stones and smashing windscreens of official vehicles.

Beyond the violence, the similarities are uncanny. Fundamentally these are all agitation over some of the most fertile tracts of farmland. “It is also about using brute political force to achieve an objective inimical to the locals… It inevitably backfires,” says Mirzan Hasan, a convenor of the Jami, Jibika, Poribesh O Bastutantra Raksha committee (committee to protect land, livelihood, environment and ecosystem), that has been leading the opposition. Son of a local TMC panchayat leader, Hasan has pledged his support for Communist Party of India (Marxist) candidate.

Banerjee, who had thrown her weight behind the resistance movements at Singur in 2006, Nandigram in 2007 and Lalgarh in 2009 as an opposition leader, is now the chief minister. Given her pro-poor, pro-people rhetoric, the agitation in Bhangar, and the government’s response, has been especially ironic.

“The issue is no more germane. But what is significant is what the Bhangar movement stands for,” says Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharyya, CPI(M) candidate from Jadavpur Lok Sanha constituency. “When poor villagers unite they can take their tormentors to task. TMC’s terror cannot subjugate us. That has been the biggest outcome.”

Ma mati manush redux

The symbolism of Bhangar is expected to play a significant role in deciding the Lok Sabha member from Jadavpur, arguably the most prestigious seat in West Bengal.

Traditionally a Left citadel, it elected CPI(M) veteran Somnath Chatterjee to the Lok Sabha, where he later became the speaker. Chief minister Banerjee also contested her first election from Jadavpur in 1984 and had won, causing a major upset. To stem the in fighting within, she purportedly sprung a surprise and announced Tollywood star Mimi Chakraborty—a political greenhorn—would take on former Kolkata Municipal Corporation mayor Bhattacharya of CPI(M).

To be fair, TMC government has accepted most of the demands and have tweaked the project significantly after Banerjee herself had to inetervene. The project won’t move but resumed only after truce. Overhead high-tension wires were replaced; nearby roads, drainage systems improved and compensation package improved to placate everyone.

Both candidates know that the wounds are still raw. Chakraborty is trying to use her star power to woo voters to her sides. “I am directly dealing with the voters there,” she says. “Bhangar was definitely an issue before. No longer. The government has accepted most of the terms of the agitators. There are far bigger issues that are more relevant…depleting water table, unemployment. I am making sure that voters of Bhangar know I stand for them and beside them.”

Chakraborty would hate a spark to foment passions yet again. More so as Bhattacharya, a seasoned lawyer, had been a consistent legal advisor to these agitating villagers in several of the court cases and have deep connects with the masses.

“He is an old world Marxist but not your quintessential dogmatic one — clean public life, tremendous goodwill, with an impeccable legal credential,” says Gautam Pramanik, a resident of Tollygunge who voted for TMC in 2014 but will switch sides this time. “He fought cases pro bono even when he was the mayor and had undertaken several civic initiatives for the city. Voters will support him and not a Barbie.”

Most people have written off BJP’s Anupam Hazra, a former Trinamool MP who recently courted controversy and received a show cause from his own party.

Power to the people

But what really transpired that polarised these villages? Why is a three-year-old agitation still relevant? Or is it?

In 2013, the state government acquired 14 acres spread over four villages for the project under Power Grid Corporation of India to set up a 4,000 kV power grid substation. Interestingly, the state government had acquired the land a day before Parliament passed the new land acquisition bill in 2013, using the draconian the Land Acquisition Act of 1894, that Banerjee herself had fought tooth and nail during her days in the opposition.

Once work on the substation commenced, the villagers reacted saying they were kept in the dark. Some said they were bullied into giving up their land. “At the gunpoint of [Trinamool Congress leader] Arabul Islam and his men, the villagers were all forced to hand over their land to the government,” says Shukla Bhuimali, a member of CPI(M) Red Star that also became a part of this movement. “This entire exercise was illegal.”

The villagers alleged the government gave a total compensation of Rs 15 crore, as per the old land acquisition act. Twelve villagers, however, refused to take the money and began protesting. From the beginning the local MLA, state Food Processing Industries Minister Abdur Razzak Molla had been downplaying the agitation saying only four five villages are under seize. In reality the discontent had spread wide and far.

The protestors were not shown any social-impact-assessment or environment-impact-assessment report even though they asked for these. Naturally, they feared adverse environmental effects of the project. Rumours spread about the potential electromagnetic effect leading to brain disease, stillborn babies, and the death of fish in the local water bodies. Most villagers who rely on farming for a living worried their output would be damage their crops. Soon with political parties — Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Red Star notorious for stalling almost eight similar projects throughout India – green and social activists joined in the movement gathered heft and organisational momentum.

What infuriated the villagers most was that the state government did not even acknowledge the deaths and in 2018 tried bulldozing the panchayat polls. Eventually, five of the eight candidates belonging to the Committee for Protection of Land Livelihood Environment and Ecology (CPLLEE), braving intense violence and murderous attacks on their supporters, won. These independents had to file their nominations through WhatsApp, in accordance with the directive of the Calcutta High Court after TMC hooligans allegedly blocked their way. The spectacular victory of protesting villagers in Bhangar represented the moral victory of one of those rare people’s movements in Bengal in recent times.

“There is indeed a ground-level grievance among villagers,” says Bhattacharya. “To break the movement, Mamata first used extra-constitutional forces like her party’s goons. And she was their messiah a few years back after she claimed the Left had sold out. It’s been a 360-degree U-turn thereafter. The fear of a free and fair elections on Sunday still persists. If that happens, the outcome might be quite different.”

Legacy of past & present

His confidence stems from the fact that of the seven assembly constituencies that together make up for Jadavpur, the urban and semi-rural voters have always had a soft corner for the Left even after the party has been decimated in recent years. CPI(M) has never lost the Jadavpur assembly since 1967, barring the 2011 elections when TMC dislodged the 34-year Left regime in Bengal. Currently, CPI(M)’s Sujan Chakraborty is the sitting MLA from Jadavpur. As a mayor, Bhattacharya also initiated several drainage projects funded by ADB in many of these newly added wards of Kolkata Corporation, thereby garnering goodwill. Even in 2014, CPIM corned 36.51% of vote share as against TMC’s 46.5% and in 2016 Assembly vote, CPIM still managed 34.38% versus TMC’s 48.26%

TMC’s infighting spurred by the rivalry of between Mollah and Islam, the local strongman in Bhangar has not only frustrated the villagers of the area but might also cause some headaches in an otherwise well-oiled machinery that should easily take on the non-existence Left organisational backbone. The apathy and absenteeism of the last two TMC Lok Sabha candidates Sugata Basu and Kabir Suman is also not helping Chakraborty, a self made actor, who rose from small town Jalpaiguri to celluloid success, to pull off what was once considered a walk in the park. “I am not going anywhere,” argues Chakraborty. “My constituency is right behind my house. Moreover, in today’s Instagram age, movie actors have nowhere to hide. We will always remain under public scrutiny. I have joined politics at the peak of my career knowing fully well what I am getting into.”

Power grid corp’s Bhangar power transmission project.

Many are hoping Jadavpur causes a big upset. In 2014, Bhangar constituency had propelled TMC to victory; this time the tangled wires might just trip up TMC hopes or at least give it a good hard fight. Pockets of the old Red bastions — the urban pockets of Jadavpur and Tollygunge that had backed former chief minister Budhadev Bhattacharya since 1982 all the way till 2011 — still have enough captive supporters and is now seeing BJP and CPIM join forces for a coordinated strategy to beat their common adversary, Banerjee’s TMC.

Bhattacharya’s own political fortunes turned in 2012-13, when he single handedly took on TMC during the aftermath of the chit fund scam in the courts and got the CBI to investigate the matter. Overnight, the former election agent of Buddhadev Bhattarcharya, was the poster boy in his party. Naturally, his party is now turning to him for redemption.

“A Left defeat will again showcase they still have not recovered from 2011 and have zero organisational strength,” said a TMC councillor who did not wish to come on record. The person said TMC will have it easy in four of the seven assembly segments in the Lok Sabha constituency that are semi rural. “In Jadavpur and Tollygunge, Left is likely take a lead. It will eventually boil down to Bhangar.”

Source: Economic Times