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In small Naxal group’s land stir, Mamata Banerjee’s big headache

2 people have been killed in firing, and police can’t enter a village where a key protester against land acquisition is holed up. The Indian Express explains the standoff at Bhangar, where some are hearing echoes of Singur and Nandigram.

Written by Aniruddha Ghosal |
February 22, 2017 12:11:48 am
Singur, Singur land stir, Nandigram, Nandigram land stir, Mamata Banerjee, west bengal, bengal naxals, west bengal naxals, naxal groups, bengal land stir, bhangar violence, bhangar land violence, powerfrid project, trinamool congress, indian express news, india news, kolkata news Red Star leader Alik Chakraborty addresses people in Bhangar. Express photo

On January 17, a mob set fire to 10 police vehicles in Bhangar, 30 km to the east of Kolkata in South 24-Parganas district, and two men were killed in firing, the source of which remains contested. It was a violent escalation of discontent over the acquisition of land for a PowerGrid project in 2013, fanned since October 2016 by a public movement against the construction of a substation as part of the project. Well over a month on, Bhangar remains tense, with police unable to enter the village where the incidents took place, and a senior Trinamool Congress leader warning last week that the government would “not take any responsibility” for anyone who aids the “Naxals” behind the agitation.

Who are these “Naxals” who caught the government by surprise and ultimately forced it to promise the project would be cancelled? Why is Bhangar — a cradle of the Tebhaga movement of the 1940s in which sharecroppers mobilised by communists revolted against landlords — significant in a state that has seen strong agitations against the acquisition of land for industry over the past decade?

Who has been leading the agitation in Bhangar?

An organisation called Jomi, Jibika, Baastutantra o Poribesh Raksha Committee (Committee to protect Land, Livelihood, Ecosystem and the Environment), guided by a little known ultra-Left outfit called CPI(ML) Red Star. It is led by Alik Chakraborty, Sharmistha Chowdhury and Pradip Singh Thakur. While Chowdhury and Thakur have been arrested, Chakraborty remains free.

What sort of presence does Red Star have in Bengal?

Not much, which is probably why the police initially “underestimated” the movement. According to estimates by law-enforcement agencies, Red Star’s cadres outside of Bhangar do not number more than a few hundred. Police say the outfit first came on the radar just before the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, when it put up a candidate — Shikha Sen Roy — for the Dum Dum seat. Sen Roy got 1,544 votes and finished last — but that situation has now changed considerably. According to a senior police officer, Red Star has created “a committee of stakeholders from different political backgrounds and mobilised people from different walks of life”, and “come a long way from 2014”.

When, how did Red Star come into being?

Like all factions of the CPI(ML), Red Star traces its roots to the organisation formed by Kanu Sanyal and Charu Majumdar in 1969 against what they saw as the CPI(M)’s increasing involvement in parliamentary politics. In its present form, Red Star was formed after a faction split from the CPI(ML) in 2009. Its general secretary K N Ramachandran is critical of both the CPI(Maoist) — whose “anarchist line” he has said is “harming the revolutionary movement as a whole” — as well as the Left Front in Bengal and Tripura. According to the Red Star constitution, the Front, in its years in power, became “synonymous with the ruling class parties”.

After walking out of the Kanu Sanyal-led CPI(ML)’s All India Special Conference in January 2009, Ramachandran formed the CPI(ML) Red Flag. The Red Flag, however, splintered again within months — over the issue of joining hands with the CPI(M) in Kerala before the 2009 parliamentary elections. Ramachandran walked out again, and Red Star was born, with the goal of ushering in a communist revolution that steered clear of both the “left adventurist” line of the CPI(Maoist) as well as the “trap of parliamentary politics”. The moderate faction, CPI(ML) Red Flag, is led by P C Unnichekkan, and has a presence in, besides Kerala, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Odisha.

How did Red Star become active in Bhangar?

A combination of factors is responsible. Pradip Singh Thakur, who had accompanied Ramachandran out of Red Flag, has deep local contacts in the village, which were utilised as Red Star began its mobilisation exercise, police maintain. It kept a low profile, and stayed under the radar of police and the local Trinamool organisation.

Second, unlike other CPI(ML) factions, a key issue in Red Star’s agenda is protection of the environment. To the issue of inadequate compensation for the 16 acres of land acquired in Bhangar, the party has been able to append concerns about anticipated threats to the area’s ecology from the power project.

What is the situation in Bhangar now?

An uneasy calm prevails. Last Thursday, Mayor of Kolkata and Cabinet Minister Sovan Chatterjee gave an ultimatum to both “Naxalites” and their sympathisers in Bhangar. “Any Naxalite force that thinks it can find refuge here, those who get involved in a political struggle… (and) aid Naxalite forces, we will not take any responsibility (for the outcome of their actions),” Chatterjee said.

The villagers have lifted a blockade they enforced for 10 days after the incidents of January 17, but police still can’t reach the ground zero of the protests — and have made no overt attempt to do so since January 28. A senior officer of the state CID said, “Khamarait, Machhi Bhanga, Tona and Gazipur in Bhangar were the worst affected by the land acquisition and we can’t enter these villagers, where we believe Alik Chakraborty is hiding.” On Saturday, 17 Left parties marched in Kolkata to demand, among other things, “unconditional release of the Bhangar protesters”.

Why is Bhangar important to the Trinamool?

Officials say it fears that the protests could give a new lease of life to the Maoist insurgency, as well as provide oxygen to the Left Front. “In Mamata’s Bengal, with the Left aligning with the Congress for elections, there is massive scope for an ML group to grow. Take the involvement of Jadavpur University students in the protests, for instance. These are young people, angry with the communist parties. It is a great opportunity for a new party to come in,” a senior police officer said.

The TMC’s inability to bring peace to the area has given an opportunity to other parties, agreed a leader of the ruling party. “The High Court is overseeing the investigation, and the Left is making inroads here. They have had at least three major meetings in the area and TMC hasn’t been able to enter the village.”

For Mamata Banerjee, the situation is personally frustrating — it was the land agitations in Singur and Nandigram that had propelled her to power for the first time in 2011, and Bhangar, if not controlled, has the potential to give her political headaches similar to the ones her communist predecessor Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee once suffered.

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