Newsletter Jan – Apr 2008


For over a year now, we have all watched with horror as events in Nandigram unfolded - raising a host of issues on democratic rights, the real cost of corporate development, the ironies of such events in a state led by a so-called peoples’ government, the CPI(M). Democratic rights groups, women's groups and countless others all over have raised their voices against the violations of people’s wishes and rights in Singur and Nandigram, and Saheli has been part of it all. Visiting the area, signing petitions demanding an immediate withdrawal of the state-led aggressions, demanding justice for victims, protesting against SEZs, speaking out in joint platforms and so on.

But for Saheli, as with many others of the independent Left, the case of Nandigram and Singur had other dimensions. For years now, we have all worked actively with women's groups closely affiliated to the CPI and CPI(M) like the National Federation of Indian Women and the All India Democratic Association (AIDWA) on a range of issues. Hence, their seeming silence on the role of the state as well as in reported cases of rape and sexual violence against women was deeply disturbing, as was their refusal to dialogue with issues being raised by a spectrum of groups. So we decided to initiate a dialogue with them. Many independent feminists also joined this effort. We trace below the events at Nandigram and reproduce correspondence indicating where our dialogue led.

The problems in Nandigram started with the Haldia Development Authority (HDA), headed by Laxman Seth, the CPI(M) MP from Tamluk, issuing a notice on 28 December 2006 identifying 27 mouzas of land in Nandigram and 2 mouzos of land in Khejuri, comprising about 25,000 acres of land for acquisition (measure of the land was not specifically mentioned in the notification). The land was to be acquired for setting up a chemical industrial complex, as part of a Special Economic Zone (SEZ), with investment from the Indonesian multinational Salim Group.

The violence in Nandigram started on 3 January 2007 when Anti-Land Acquisition Protestors demanded clarifications regarding the SEZ project from the Kalicharanpur Panchayat Samity office and the police were called in. Several people were injured in the police lathi charge that followed and a police jeep either caught fire due to either an accident or was set on fire by the mob. Tensions escalated over the next couple of days as the people of Nandigram put up roadblocks and cut off access to their area for the local administration and police. There were clashes between pro-government and anti-land acquisition groups and several supporters of the CPI(M) and their families left the area to take refuge in camps in neighbouring Khejuri which was still a ruling party stronghold.

In the early hours of the morning of 7 January 2007 at least five persons from Nandigram were killed as armed CPl(M) cadre allegedly hurled bombs and fired bullets. In retaliation the villagers set fire to a CPl(M) camp at Baratole in Khejuri and to the house of Shankar Samanta, who was burnt to death in the incident. The police and the administrative officials were nowhere to be seen and confined themselves to the Nandigram Police Station.

On 7 February 2007 a sub-inspector of police Sri Sadhu Chatterjee was waylaid by an unruly mob, dragged away, assaulted and killed. His dead body was recovered subsequently on 10 February 07 after dredging parts of the adjoining river. On 12 February 2007 the Chief Minister, West Bengal, addressed a public meeting at Haldia, a place adjacent to Nandigram, and stated that no land would be taken from those unwilling give it. However the very next day at a Press Conference in Tamluk Mr. Laxman Seth, CPI(M) M.P., said that the land mentioned in the “notice” issued by the Haldia Development Authority “wouId be acquired”. The written notice was however, not superseded by a written withdrawal at the time.

On 10 March 2007 the District Magistrate, East Midnapur, convened a meeting of all political parties to take up the issue of repairing roads. The opposition parties boycotted the meeting on the basis that no steps were taken on the previous resolutions. It was decided in the same meeting that the roads will be repaired and if any individual or any group of people or any organisation created any disturbance steps would be taken against such persons according to law.

On 14 March 2007 around 9.30 a.m. five thousand policemen gathered at the two entry points into Nandigram. Apart from policemen local leaders and cadres of Communist Party of India (Marxist) were also present. There was an announcement by the police party asking the villagers to allow them to repair the ‘bund’. People replied that they would undertake this work themselves. There was very little dialogue over this issue and very soon the police went on the offensive. Police fired tear-gas and immediately followed with bullets & rubber bullets, chased the people, mostly women & children, hitting out with lathis and iron rods, and firing. The villagers were chased, and many were caught and mercilessly beaten, and the women had to face sexual assault. The lack of parleying seems to suggest that the carnage caused by police firing on the retreating masses, mainly of women & children, was pre-planned. The 14"‘ March 2007 attack by the police led to 14 peasants being killed and at least 75 injured. But the local police did not record any FIR.

Over the next few months violence kept erupting in Nandigram. Every night there was firing from Khejuri. On November 6th 2007, just as CRPF was preparing to come to the area to aid the government, the CPI(M) began ‘Operation Recapture’ to regain the lost ground in Nandigram. 10 persons were injured in clashes between workers of CPM and anti-land acquisition Bhumi Ucchhed Proatirodh Committee (BUPC). Nearly 200 CPI(M) workers armed with rifles and pipe guns protected by human shields crossed the Talpatti canal from the Khejuri side and marched into Ranichowk and Satengabari in Nandigram. They attacked half a dozen villages, firing and hurling bombs. Nearly 10,000 villagers fled as CPM cadres started setting one house after another on fire. At the end of the operation, 40-45% of ‘CPI(M) land’ was captured! The ‘Red Army’ had recaptured all the Nandigram villages on 11th November in a final, lightning offensive.

While some eminent historians like Tanika Sarkar and Sumit Sarkar have likened Nandigram to Gujarat, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that there are similarities. The CPI(M) government in power knew that its cadres were engaged in a bloody battle, and yet chose to do nothing about it. The CPI(M) has not been open to any criticism or probe and in fact, even refused to participate in the Indian People's Tribunal. It has constantly used the bogey of Naxal presence in Nandigram to deflect attention from its involvement in the violence that unfolded — as if to say that people’s lands being taken away was something that was hyped up by the BUPC and the Maoists. This also brings into question the Left's stand on the question of industrialisation and the collateral baggage it brings along with it. It has pursed policies (be it in Singur or Nandigram) that are no different from the any other party, and seems to be well on the road of promoting globalisation and SEZs.

From March 14 onwards the CPI(M) lashed out at any one who did not agree with them. From the office of the Governer, to the independent Left intellectuals and activists all were denounced in no uncertain terms. The attitude of the CPI(M) intellectuals has been alarming. Not only have they not condemned the violence in the State, but have also defended the West Bengal government. None of the ‘party intellectuals’ have said anything at variance from the party line. It was in this context that Saheli decided to meet up with some of the members of AIDWA to engage in a dialogue; to see whether it was even possible to convince them that there was another side to the story....

State sponsored violence at this scale and that too for providing land to the Salim group responsible and active in anti-communist crackdown in Indonesia is totally unacceptable. We refuse to accept the blame that our reaction to police firing and CPI(M) violence is in any way responsible for promoting Mamta Banerji. It is for the CPI(M) to wonder why those who have gone along with it and even condemned attacks on CPI(M) offices by the RSS in March 2008 are not with it on the question of Nandigram or Singur.

In February 2008 also, at the XII Conference of the Indian Association of Women's Studies in Lucknow several groups and individuals got together and raised the issue with members of AIDWA but to no avail. At this meeting a resolution was passed condemning the violence, role of the state, challenging the model of development and seeking justice for the victims of






January 30, 2008

To members of AIDWA,

Re: Meeting regarding Nandigram

Dear Subhashini Ali, Sehba Farooqui, Shamoli Gupta and Ayesha Kidwai,

Thank you for responding to our request for a meeting at our office on the issues emanating from various developments in Nandigram, and more specifically, the role of AIDWA with regard to these.

We approached you as partners in the women’s movement with whom we have worked for years on a range of issues – from population control, hazardous contraceptives and sex selective abortions to nuclear weaponisation and war. Our journey has been long and often fruitful, but it has also been turbulent at times. But in the spirit of valuing dialogue to resolve differences, the meeting was an attempt to discuss some core issues of the conflict.

The events in Nandigram and Singur over the last year have raised a number of deeply troublesome issues, which we, as members of the autonomous women's movement and concerned feminists, wished to discuss with you. We had hoped to hear the voice of a group that has often gone beyond the constraints of its party affiliation, especially on the question of women's rights.

While there will be differences and debate about larger questions around industrialisation and the pattern of development being promoted in the state, we chose to focus on certain issues. Among the concerns we raised with you were:

Concern about widespread violence including sexual violence. There is enough evidence pointing to horrific violence in Nandigram — sexual and otherwise. Yet there has been no clear cut condemnation of this from AIDWA. Even at the meeting, your stress remained on ‘their people’ versus ‘our cadres,’ and ‘our women’ raped by ‘others’. This creation of an ‘us’ and ‘them’ among victims is deeply problematic - whether it comes from a women’s group or a political party - especially one that is in power in the State, and has a presence in the Centre. You also know as well as we do how severely such positions compromise the very possibility of justice for all who have been wronged - killed, raped, terrorised, displaced, rendered homeless and jobless, etc. This is all the more true for women who are the first casualty at such times, their bodies used and abused by all sides in conflict. In such a context, your simply asking us to bring names and cases to your notice for action seems a mere formality - given the number of cases that are already public knowledge.

Several independent fact-finding reports, media reports, as well as the findings of those involved in such processes who were present at the meeting, caused us to raise concerns about how the conflation between State, State institutions and the Party have created legitimacy for violence by CPI(M) cadres on the ground. Simultaneously, this also compounds the partisan role of the administration in investigation, arrests, security, etc. In such a situation, your assurances that “processes of justice, compensation and relief, etc are under way” also failed to be convincing. But we hope that you will still follow through on your assurance to pursue cases that emerge, to ensure “whoever is responsible should be punished. Even if they are the CPI(M).”

We appreciate your dismay that most fact-finding reports do not adequately mention or condemn the violence suffered by families who owe their allegiance to the CPM/Left Front. However, this cannot justify the way in which the CPM and even the Chief Minister of West Bengal virtually celebrated ‘victory’ and ‘retaliation’ by party cadres. Most disturbingly, you seemed to condone the cadre actions when you said to us that “well, if people aren't allowed to go back to their homes, then they will do whatever they con to enter”. You also asserted that the tense situation did not allow you all to enter the area for a length of time. In this scenario, efforts could have been made by you to reach out to women across party affiliations, and especially those lost on the margins, with the help/collaboration of independent initiatives, autonomous groups or fact-finding teams who were in the region, or bring to bear some pressure on the State Women’s Commission to do the needful.

Another major issue we raised with you was the manner in which voices of dissent were sought to be de-legitimised, be they from people on the ground, opposing political parties, autonomous groups, government bodies like the CBI, NHRC, etc., or even individual voices of those closely associated with the Left. Since the events around 14 March 2007, when the first critiques and fact-finding reports emerged, there has been a concerted effort to attack their veracity rather than address the issues raised. At one level, this raises deep concerns about whether we believe dissent and criticism has the potential to strengthen our politics and functioning. At another level, is the critical question: could a readiness to deal with what went wrong in March have prevented what went horribly wrong in November 2007? We urge you to reflect on the matter.

Other key concerns we shared were regarding the presence and use of arms by all sides. We cannot hope for peace to be restored without relief, justice or the disarming of the populace. Industrialisation and development must be based on the consent of the people, and not achieved by force or quelling dissent. Our expectation from a group like AIDWA would be for it to challenge such gross violations of human rights, especially those related to violence against women. More so when it takes place in a state where the party it is affiliated to holds power, and therefore bears a greater responsibility to uphold the law. But that has not been the case. Equally disappointing was the fact that even when we tried to talk things over with you as AIDWA, the voice we predominantly heard was that of the Party. A voice that must find contradiction from within, if justice, peace and normalcy are to return to Nandigram.

Given the continuing insecurity in Nandigram, there is still a definite role that we expect you to play as a women's group. At the minimum, we hope:


All of us at Saheli, with Ranjana Padhi, Urvashi Butalia, Vrinda Grover, Anjali Deshpande, Uma Chakravarti



March 15, 2008

Dear Colleagues from Saheli, Ranjana Padhi, Urvashi Butalia, Vrinda Grover, Anjali Deshpande, and Uma Chakravarti.

Sorry for the delay in replying.

There is not much point in repeating all the things that have been said. Obviously, there are going to be areas of disagreement not only about Nandigram but also about any number of other issues.

Since we met, the CBI enquiry has been underway and the National Commission for Women has also submitted its reports which you must have seen. For example, the 2 young girls (daughters of the lady who had complained of sexual assault) about whom there were reports that they had been abducted, have been found with their relatives (the first NCW report had said that people in the village told them that they had seen them leaving with their relatives.) Many others reported missing have also been found. As we had said to you, please do send us any information you have of complaints that have not been registered etc.

You have mentioned the need to give credence to the reports of institutions like the NHRC, CBI etc. Actually, it is not possible to give any institutions a blanket certificate because not only are they amenable to different kinds of pressures including money but the personnel involved have their own baggage of prejudice, beliefs etc. For example, the CBI has not covered itself in glory as far as the investigation into the 1984 riots is concerned and has also not been very successful in bringing corrupt politicians and officials to book. Courts have also given and made very prejudiced judgments, instructions and observations from time to time.

As far as political affiliation is concerned we would like to state that many of us in AIDWA are members of the CPI(M) and have never tried to hide this fact. This has never prevented us from intervening on issues concerning gender justice and violence. It is also a fact that many of those who claim to be ‘autonomous’ also have political affiliations and preferences and, unfortunately, some of them do not always acknowledge this fact.

There are many issues concerning women and women’s movements that need our attention and intervention and restoration of peace and also redressal of grievances and ensuring justice in Nandigram are among them. We hope we will be able to work together on these in the future.

Subhashini Ali, Shyamali Gupta, Sehba Farooqui, Ayesha Kidwai (AIDWA)