In an effort to attract investment, the Left Front (LF) government in the state of West Bengal has tried to drive thousands of petty landowners, poor cultivators and wage labourers out of their homes and off their fields, despite this depriving many of them of any means of livelihood. When they resisted, it sent in gun-toting police, killing more than 20 people on January 7 and March 14.
These atrocities have thrown the government, led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), into crisis. The CPI(M), which holds 176 seats in the 294-member state assembly, has been held responsible for the debacle, especially after its three main LF partners — the Communist Party of India, the All-India Forward Bloc and the Revolutionary Socialist Party — publicly distanced themselves from the measures.
The three minor parties, which together hold 51 seats in the state assembly, are now complaining about not being consulted on major policies and have warned that the future of the three-decade-long LF government is in the balance unless their demands for condemnation of the killings and a public inquiry into the incidents are met.
A wave of protest spread across West Bengal in response to the killings, including a 12-hour statewide bandh (shutdown) on March 16 that coincided with a 24-hour strike. Protests were also held in Delhi.
Neither the CPI(M)'s neoliberal push nor the accompanying violent repression are accidents. Last December, in Singur, 50 kilometres from West Bengal's state capital Kolkata, the state government tried to evict 9020 mostly mini-plot landholders and their share-croppers from 635 acres of land in order to construct a car manufacturing plant funded by the Tatas business empire. There are suspicions that Tatas actually wants the land for property speculation given the company has failed to utilise huge tracts of land in the state of Orissa purportedly acquired for industrial use. The Singur farmers have put up a dogged fight, despite facing repression.
The January and March killings happened in Nandigram, 150km south-west of Kolkata, where the state government seeks to grab 22,500 acres of land for a "special economic zone" centred around a 10,000-acre chemical hub funded by Indonesia's Salim Group, a conglomerate that has close ties to former Indonesian dictator Suharto.
The Salim deal was signed last July but farmers refused to give up their land. Despite protests by the farmers, the authorities pressed on with the evictions. When the unarmed villagers resisted, they were charged by police armed with lathis (long bamboo poles), tear gassed and fired upon in the early hours of January 7. Six villagers were reportedly killed and at least 20 injured.
In response, about 5000 people set alight to a CPI(M) camp in the vicinity, and dug up all the roads leading to Nandigram and barricaded it, until the cops came on March 14. Figures for those killed vary from 15 to more than 20, with many more injured.
Kolkata's Telegraph reported that 400-500 rounds were fired into a 2000-strong crowd. The victims, who were admitted to hospital, were struck above the waist, rather than in the legs as the police operation manual prescribes. Two women have accused police of raping them.
In Singur, police arrested nearly 500 Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation activists at a January 8 solidarity protest. On March 23, the CPI(ML) launched a nationwide campaign in solidarity with the Singur and Nandigram struggles.