Ki Bolche Bangla: In Nandigram, Memories, Martyrs & Mir Jafars

The historic town of Nandigram in East Midnapore has come to be the epicentre of the West Bengal Elections 2021.

West Bengal
8 min read

The epicentre of the West Bengal elections 2021 has undoubtedly been Nandigram, in the East Midnapore district.

The Trinamool Congress (TMC) contender from this historic town is none other than party chief and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee herself. Against her, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has fielded, her once protege, Suvendu Adhikari, who is also the saffron brigade's star acquisition from the TMC this poll season.

In the first episode of Ki Bolche Bangla, The Quint's new election series from Bengal, we travel to Nandigram to understand how its history affects today's vote, and what people have to say about this high stakes battle between Dada and Didi.

Bhule Jabo Nijer Naam, Bhulbo Naa Nandigram

Nandigram rose to national prominence in 2007 due to massive, violent anti-land acquisition protests against the then Left Front government in the state.

The government wanted to acquire 10,000 acres of land in Nandigram to create a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in order to build a chemical hub by Indonesian firm, Salim Group.

Most of the land that the government was trying to acquire, however, was agricultural land.

To protect their land and livelihood, the villagers of Nandigram laid seige in the area, as thousands took to the protests.

The Left government responded with aggression.

The protests reached a painful climax when on 14 March 2007, then Chief Minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, sent about 2,500 policemen to “recapture” Nandigram. These policemen were allegedly accompanied by hundreds of Left cadre. What followed was a violent face-off between the cops and the protestors, leading to the death of 14 protestors in police firing.

Of the many organisations at the forefront of the Nandigram movement was the TMC. Both Mamata and Suvendu, especially Suvendu, a Midnapore local, were seen as tall leaders of the movement. Subsequently, it was on the back of the Nandigram and Singur anti-land acquisition movements that Mamata Banerjee came to power in 2011, after 34 years of Left rule in the state.

Today, both Mamata and Suvendu are trying to appropriate the legacy of that movement.

At a meeting with party workers at the Nandigram Bus Stand, just the day before she got injured in the area during campaigning, Mamata seemed furious at the insinuation that Suvendu, and not her, was TMC's face for the movement.

"Bhule jaabo nijer naam, bhulbo na Nandigram (I'll forget my own name, but not that of Nandigram)", she roared, recalling the famous slogan from the days of the movement.

"Voting here is on 1 April. Make April Fools of the BJP", she added, to rapturous applause.

Taking her on, Suvendu mocked Mamata for allegedly saying that without the Singur movement, Nandigram would not have been possible.

"She's asking her people, tell me, tell me, if I should stand from Nandigram", he says at a bloc level meeting, mimicking Mamata.

"We are saying that she must stand. We are also saying that she must stand, lose and go back home", he adds, to chants of Jai Shri Ram from the audience.

Suvendu was the sitting MLA from Nandigram, on a TMC ticket, till he quit the party and the legislature in 2019. He's publicly vowed to beat Mamata by at least 50,000 votes this election, failing which he's said he'll quit politics. He's fronted himself as a bhumiputra or son of the soil, against an "outsider" Mamata. In this, he's taken the TMC's state-level "outsider" jab against the BJP and turned it against the the party in Nandigram.

Suvendu has also enlisted himself in the electoral rolls of Nandigram.


Memories Of The Movement

Those killed during the Nandigram movement are known locally as "martyrs".

The memories of the days in 2007 and the violence is still fresh in the mind of all these families, who still haven't been able to reconcile with the death of a loved one.

"Those days were completely different. There were bombs, chaos and perennial fear of someone taking away our land", says Rinku Mondol, widow of Bharat Mondol, who was killed in the Nandigram movement.

"Everyone in the village- men, women, children- no one was home. Everybody had gone to protest", explains Abdul Daiyan Khan, when asked why his 18-year-old son, Imadul Khan, had joined the protests.

Imadul and his friends were shot at the Bhangabera bridge in Nandigram, one of the two spots where clashes and police firing took place.

“The police first lobbed tear gas. At that time, him (Imadul) and his friends were sitting across the bridge and watching what was happening. When the tear gas hit their eyes, they jumped into the pond to wash their face. When they were coming out, they were hit by bullets”, says Abdul Daiyan.

Aloka Bala Das, still tears up when she thinks of her son Gobindo, killed at 16.

"We saw many police cars coming. Then there were tear gas shells and firing. We walked with his body to the Nandigram hospital. It was a long walk. When we reached, they said that he was fine, but we knew he was gone", she says.

"There must've been at least 70-80,000 people out on the streets that day. They (the Left cadre) ran away with my son's body. We kept searching and found it three days later at a morgue in Tamluk", says Pratap Giri, father of Rakhal Giri, a 17-year-old, also killed on 14 March.

All the martyr families, however, also distinctly remember who stood by them in the days after the movement and those who didn't.


Sarees, Shawls, Shahid Dibas

Many of these martyr families that The Quint spoke to have picked a side these elections. Others seemed to be disillusioned with both.

When asked what they’ve received as compensation in these 14 years, all of them mention three things- 5 lakh rupees from the Left government, sarees and shawls from the TMC during Durga Puja, and their annual trip to Kolkata for Mamata Banerjee’s Shahid Dibas programme held on 21 July.

These not withstanding, all of them have their own bone to pick with one or both candidates.

"We all respect Didi. But we have never seen her. She hasn’t come home in 14 years. We have no hopes from her. Whatever was done, was done by Suvendu Da", says Rinku Mondol.

"We are with him. He must've had some problem with the TMC, which is why he left", she adds.

On the other hand, Abdul Daiyan Khan believes that Suvendu has disrespected Nandigram and the movement by jumping ship.

"He’s become highlighted today as the leader of the movement, because Didi was with him. Without Didi would he have been able to come so far? She trusted him and gave him so many positions, however, he betrayed the party and left. He didn’t keep the respect that the people of Nandigram gave him and joined BJP", he says.

Others, like Pratap Giri, are angry with both.

“Once Mamata was doing a programme here before the elections. She gave me 50,000 rupees then. But apart from that, since she took the chair, Mamata has not given us anything. She was supposed to give us work, but she said she’s handing over the responsibility to Suvendu. We didn’t get work”, he tells The Quint.

Aloka Bala Das says that she doesn't understand whether it was Didi or Dada who'd been working in the area.

"We've seen Suvendu, but till last year, he was with Mamata. Now we don't know if he did all the work himself or whether he was working for Mamata", she says.

The disillusionment with the TMC also comes from the fact that many of those who once the led the Nandigram movement, have now joined the party.

For example, Sheikh Sufiyan, Mamata's election agent for the polls, a TMC leader, and also the president of the Bhoomi Ucched Pratirodh Committee (BUPC), that was one of the organisations leading the Nandigram movement.

Sufiyan’s house, known locally as the Jahaj Baari or Ship House, is famous because of a ship-shaped structure sitting at the roof of the three-storey building. It is also symbolic of the good fortunes of the TMC leaders since the party came to power. Legend has it that Mamata Banerjee, refused to step into Sufiyan’s house when she first saw it, because she was irked by its opulence.

Speaking to The Quint, Sufiyan says that there is nothing wrong with mass leaders getting into mainstream politics.

"Every person is political. If you’re a voter, then you’ll vote for one party. And that party will come to power. So, naturally we are politically TMC, but when we were doing the land agitation we were a part of the Bhoomi Uchhed Pratirodh Committee. But BUPC does not do politics. TMC is a political party. So, we do politics only under the banner of a political party", said Sufiyan.


Muslims & Mir Jafars

In a constituency which has about 30 percent Muslim vote, the narrative is quite clear. On one hand BJP is pushing a battle to "save" Hindus and Hindutva, on the other, Mamata is waging an attack on her "Mir Jafar".

For those weak with history, Mir Jafar was the commandant of the army of Bengal Nawab Siraj-ud-Daulah, who fought the Battle of Plassey and lost against the British.

History states that Siraj's fall could be attributed to Mir Jafar, who betrayed his king and allied with the British. Till date, it is seen as one of the greatest betrayals in the history of Bengal.

Until Suvendu Adhikari came along, that is, at least for TMC supporters.

“I was a supporter of Suvendu till a few days ago. But what Dada has done, in one word, is betrayal. I was very sad. Didn’t ever think he’d do something like this”, said Tara Shankar Maity, a resident of Nandigram. Maity even accepts to putting up posters of “Amra Dadar Anugami” (We Are Dada’s Followers) when Suvendu’s falling out with the TMC became public. But switching sides to the BJP was just too much, he says.

At the tea shop where we met Maity, the tea seller, Hare Krishna Samanta, is a massive Didi supporter.

"Suvendu climbed up the ranks using Didi’s help. But he betrayed her. He’s Mir Jafar. What do we need Suvendu for? He will go from one branch to another. For his own good", says Samanta.

Samanta's stall in Nandigram's Reapara is located right opposite the house that Mamata Banerjee has set up as her election home in the constituency.

Right next to the house, we meet Rekha Bagh. Bagh says she lives in the area, and all she wants is a job for her 35-year-old son. Since years of pleading to the TMC has not helped, she says that she will now vote for Suvendu.

"I will fall on Suvendu Da’s feet and tell him that I’ll sell my house, but please give my son a job. I have not been able to get him married", she cries.

At Suvendu's sabha in Nandigram, jobs seem to be the main reason why many youngsters have joined the BJP.

"We are educated people. All these boys here who are doing BJP, are all jobless. Because of the unemployment caused by Didi, a lot of boys have gone to Gujarat", says Tapas Bangal, a young BJP supporter, parroting the lines that he'd just heard Suvendu say.

"We have done graduation, I have a degree in IT, but still there are no jobs here", says Bapan Barik, another youngster and BJP supporter at the rally.

Those who seemed happy with Mamata, however, are the ones who were also the most silent in Nandigram- the women voters.

Flagship schemes of the TMC government aimed at women like the Kanyashree scheme seem to have earned brownie points for Mamata.

"We are Kanyashree, we have received helped from the scheme. We also received 10,000 rupees after our higher secondary exam. We've received cycles. That’s why we the people of Nandigram want her here beside us forever", says Uma Mondol.

Clearly, therefore, the battle lines are drawn and it doesn't seem like either side will allow a walkover. Nandigram votes in the second phase of the elections, on 1 April. The results for the same will be declared on 2 May.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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