Bhangor Struggle : A protracted mass movement against land acquisition and neo-liberal model of development

In November 2008, a rather remarkable movement of people began in Lalgarh district of West Bengal. On one hand, it was a  direct response to the police brutality which was perpetrated by the West Bengal police on 5th November, 2008. On the other hand, it was a manifestation of the anger of the villagers simmmering before the police violence due to Jindal forcefully acquiring land and setting up their Steel plant.  Lalgarh was thus a movement against land grab , state repression and a response of the people against age old deprivation and humiliation. [1]

A similar movement has risen again in West Bengal. This time in an area called Bhangor which comprises of many villages. People are opposing a power-grid project undertaken by Powergrid Corporation of India (PGCIL) in which an electric substation is being built on  village land of to 13 acres along with electric towers occupying nearby land of approximately 5 acres. The manner in which TMC government forcefully grabbed this land from the villagers and the high handedness with which PGCIL has worked on the project without engaging in any dialogue with the villagers has given rise to this movement.

That labouring masses can never be beneficiaries of the “urbanized development model” currently in vogue has been clear to the people of Bhangor since beginning of this century.  In the last twenty years,  illegal land grab and real estate syndicates have rampaged all over the Rajarhat-Newtown area, adjacent to Bhangor.  These grabs were led by then Left Front government. People at Bhangor have witnessed, from very close quarters, this entire process of looting agricultural land from farmers and converting it into townships in the name of development. They have seen the cropping up of pleasure resorts like “Vedic village”, only 3.5 km away from the power-grid site. They have seen how this forced urbanisation has damaged the drainage systems in the area as well as the agriculture. Night after night, late night parties at the Vedic village involving burning of lakhs of rupees worth firecrackers at one go, bear testimony to the true face of “development” as far as the working people of Bhangor are concerned, who struggle for day to day survival with broken down roads and an abysmal transport system. [3]

Origins of the current struggle can be traced back to 2012 when the state government decided to acquire several plots of land for building a power station. Villagers in the area did not agree and met the collector. The Collector called for a meeting of villagers but also invited a local TMC leader Arabul Islam, known as the  “terror of Bhangar” among the locals. Arabul’s goons who were present in the meeting did not let villagers speak and told the collector that villagers had given their consent!  Arabul Islam negotiated all the land deals and villagers who were forced to sell their land were given less than a sixth of the amount they had signed upon.

Between 2012 and  2014 there was suspicion regarding the nature of the project among the community, prompting two of the villages in the area to try and organize a public meeting to discuss the issue. However, police repeatedly denied permission for such a meeting. As the national elections were on the horizon, a local TMC leader asked police to let them hold a token meeting for half an hour! However, this too was stopped when the community leaders started discussing issue of the power-grid.

The work on the power-grid majorly began in 2014 and in 2016 when transmission carriers were brought in, villagers decided to resist. The transmission careers were dragged through the field and damaged a lot of standing crops.  On 3rd November when a team of PGCIL accompanied by police were installing a tower in the area, several villagers who were working in the field protested.  A number of villagers including women were brutally beaten up by the police contingent which included no police-women among their ranks.

Within the next few days a Committee for Protection of Land, Livelihood, Ecosystem and Environment was constituted to conduct the struggle in an organised manner, and units of the Committee were formed in each village. This is when the struggling villagers also contacted various democratic and progressive movements and organisations across the state in the face of ruthless police terror. Thus, various activists working in mass movements got involved in the functioning of the Committee.

The organised participation of a large number of people added momentum to the struggle. It was no longer just “some unorganised villagers” anymore, but hundreds of people united under the banner of the Committee.[3] They submitted mass petitions to all possible authorities, including the Chief Minister.  Between November 2016 and the second week of December, villagers tried to meet every concerned official to initiate a dialogue, to no avail.  In fact it should be noted that till date, not a single meeting has been called by PGCIL officers or government officials to discuss the concerns of the villagers. As is typical in this neo-liberal era,  “development plans” are shoved down the throats of oppressed masses who are forced to accept it.  Meanwhile, on 19th December 2016, Arabul’s armed gangs attacked two of the villages in the area which were the base of the struggle, to terrorise the growing movement into submission. But the spontaneous resistance of thousands of villagers forced them to abandon the plan and escape from the villages. This incident of TMC goons cowing down before the resistance of common villagers was a landmark event in the history of Bhangor. [3] .

As the struggle gained momentum it became clear that the democratic aspirations of people in the region finally found their hopes and expressions in the Committee built by the people themselves.

On 22nd December, tens of thousands of people marched to the Governor’s office to dispel the myths and propaganda shrouding the movement and to convey the real message of the movement.  However, instead of taking into consideration, the genuine discontent of the masses, the administration and ruling government refused to even accept their petition. In fact, section 144 was imposed in the area banning meetings and rallies.  In the face of all this, the villagers were left with no other option but to announce blockade of a highway on 11th January 2017. [2]

Around 30 to 40 thousand villagers sat on the Hadowa road.  A huge contingent of police officers was deployed on that day with the excuse of maintaining law and order. They spoke with the leaders of the movement right there in front of the power grid itself. Around 3 in the afternoon, the administration declared that the district collector would meet with the Committee. And till such time, the construction of the power grid will be stalled.  However, both these promises made to the villagers were violated.

In fact, on the afternoon of 16th January, two of the leaders of the struggle were picked up by policemen in plain clothes without any explanation. A large protest was organized by villagers demanding their release because of which both of them were released later that night.

However, in the late hours of 16th January itself (exactly a week before brutal attack by Tamil Nadu police of Jalilkattu protestors and fisher folks on Marina Beach)  the police unleashed unbridled terror on the resisting villages. They went from village to village, ruthlessly beating up anyone who they could find, including children, elderly and women. The women couldn’t get respite even by hiding in the toilets. They were dragged out by male police officers, their clothes were torn and they were brutally beaten up and molested. Houses and other property were destroyed. Many families incurred losses to the tune of 20 to 30 thousand rupees. [3]

In protest of this, yet again, a large number of people again blocked the Hadowa road the following morning. The huge police battalion stationed there, instead of resolving the matter peacefully, instead of apologizing for their actions the previous night, decided to show their strength by tear gassing the protesters. As per many eye witness reports, Arabul’s goons, hidden among the police force, started charging country bombs at the people to frighten and disperse the crowd. But when the desperate protesters still refused to give up or leave, the joint forces of the police and goons started firing bullets into the crowd. Alamgir, a M.Sc. student, and Mofizul Molla, a daily wage worker, were martyred in these firings. 12 villagers were arrested by the police, including 2 minors.

A question often seems to arise regarding the movement that the forced 20 acre or so  land grab by the government has affected around 52 families. Then why are tens of thousands of people protesting ? In fact the socio-economic condition of population in Bhangor is rather mixed. In addition to farmers and fishworkers who stand to be directly and adversely affected by the power-grid, the remaining population primarily works as wage labourers, esp. construction workers in nearby area. What are the reasons for their protest?

The illegality of the land-grab done under hooliganism of TMC goons and the arrogance and heavy-handedness with which administration has dealt with the fears of the population (regarding the effect of power-grid on daily lives, enviornmental impacts of the grid on surrounding river etc) has meant that villagers on one hand are forced to give up their land and on the other are not getting answers to the questions they are raising. It is this exclusive and un-constitutional model of development which is challenged by the  people of Bhangor.

Around 25 non-bailable cases have been filed on the protesters. On 25th January, Committee leaders like Sharmishtha Chowdhury and Pradeep Singh Thakur were arrested to clamp down upon the movement. Both of them still remain in jail.  Draconian acts like UAPA have been slapped on people to incarcerate them for long periods without proper trial. Sharmishtha and Pradeep Singh are activists with CPI(ML) Red-star which is not a banned organization. However, the government as well as mainstream media reports have been terming it a naxalite outfit. In fact, by slapping UAPA charges on leaders of the struggle, the government is saying that this is a terrorist movement. As is well known, UAPA can only be invoked if a person is engaged in activities that challenges the sovereignity and integrity of the nation. It is remarkable that this democratic struggle of villagers who are resisting forceful grab of their lands and destruction of their livelihood is considered a threat to the integrity of the Indian state.

Nevertheless the movement has not been tamed even after arresting the leadership of the struggle. The police stepped up its attacks both in Bhangor and in Kolkata to break the morale of the movement. Arbitrary arrests were made to terrorize people connected with the struggle. Kushal Debnath and Shankar Das, leaders of the solidarity committee constituted in Kolkata in support of the struggle at Bhangor, were picked up in broad daylight from the middle of the city. Several false cases were filed on them, including UAPA. The police are conducting regular raids at the residence of activist Amitabha Bhattacharya on the “charge” of being involved with the struggle. More than 15 false cases have been lodged on APDR members and students from various Universities and colleges across the state for being part of the Bhangor struggle. Many of these are non-bailable offenses, such as attacking the police, offenses under the Arms Act, etc. Leaders and local organisers of the Committee like Kalu Sheikh, Abul Hossain, Ahad Molla who have been with the struggle from the beginning were arrested during surprise raids conducted by the police. The police are relentlessly trying to catch hold of Aleek Chakraborty, another one of the leaders of the struggle. However, the villagers are in no mood to back down. It is expected that after a lull in the police onslaught during the month of Ramzan (95% of population of the area is Muslim), there will be a surge in the state sponsored violence on the people of Bhangor. However as of today, the morale of the villagers and the strength of their organization vis a vis the committee remains strong.

The movement, like previous mass movements, has given birth to new forms of organizing. One of the key strengths of this movement has been the role played by the women.[3] After the arrests on the 17th January, the women of Bhangor have repeatedly assumed active leadership roles in the struggle. They formed separate women’s committees across villages to resist police terror. Such democratic organising by the women in the villages is being distorted as “armed Gulabi gangs” by the mainstream media.   In fact in this dark period for our country, where facist rulers are screaming at top of their voices that our country is developing like never before, people’s movements like Bhangor challenge this narrative. Democratic mass movements like Bhangor which sustain themselves despite intense state repression create ripples. As it being witnessed in West Bengal, various struggles are coming up, particularly ones around the issues of protection of land. Villagers of Bhabadighi in Goghat are fighting to protect their communal pond, farmers of Amdanga are fighting against forced land grab in the name of road expansion. Farmers of Shibpur in Birbhum, of Andal in Bardhaman are raising questions against illegal land acquisition in the name of development.

[1]https://southasiarev.wordpress.com/2010/01/02/amit-bhattacharyya-on-the-historic-importance-of-the-lalgarh-movement/

[2] WSS report on the Bhangor struggle: Towering resistance

[3] PDSF report on the Bhangor movement: Bhangor: An ongoing struggle against anti-development

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