Last night at about ten, I received a call from a school friend of mine. He sounded agitated. The issue was Nandigram. He said he had spoken to many people in West Bengal and in towns near Nandigram. He had worked in that locality in his younger days as an officer in a public sector company and clearly knows the region well. The gist of his statements were as follows:
"A very bad and evil thing has happened. The government and the cadres of the Left Front have gone on a spree killing innocent people. While the official numbers say 14 dead, the actual number of dead is over 500. A ditch in Nandigram is littered with bodies. Something like this last happened in Jallianwala Bag. Everyone is West Bengal is agitated, people are coming out on the streets in Kolkata. This Left Front government will not get elected again. West Bengal is on fire."
Clearly the revolutionary spirit of my friend had been awakened by what by all accounts is a most tragic incident. He said all this and more. While I am relying on my memory to write the statements, I can assure you that there is no exaggeration. I had also been watching the news on prime time television switching between CNN-IBN and NDTV trying to catch on what had happened (avoiding the noise of the anchor and concentrating on the visuals) and trying to make sense out of it. What I have understood so far (and even I have spoken to a few people in Kolkata):
1. The West Bengal CM quite some time back had assured the people of Nandigram that no land will be acquired for the SEZ if they did not want it and the SEZ will be shifted elsewhere. But apparently the administration was yet to withdraw the notice for land acquisition although all such activities had come to a stop.
2. In Nandigram, the CPI(M) cadres and administration officials had been driven out in January and since then they have not been able to go back. The villagers have bee under the control of the agitationists and quite possibly there are outsiders in their midst fomenting trouble. Roads have been dug up and ditches have been built to ensure that vehicles cannot move in.
3. The West Bengal government sent in police force to "reclaim Nandigram". Sometime back a policeman had been killed and his body discovered after many days. Apparently commingling with the police force were the CPI (M) cadres itching for violence and revenge.
In this melee one side started the firing - both sides obviously accuse the other. 14 lives, some innocent and some not, have been lost. Numerous questions crop up:
1. Who were the people who had driven out the administration and what were they holding out against even after the government had put a stop to land acquisition?
2. Who had supplied arms and ammunition to this group and what is their motive? Where did the crowd get crude bombs from?
3. Why had the West Bengal government not withdrawn the notification for land acquisition if it had acceded to the "people's will"?
4. Why were the police force sent on Wednesday - two months since the resistance? Should it have been sent earlier or later after trying to resolve the stand off through dialogues?
The media has been frothing at the mouth calling Buddhadeb Bhattacharya names and heralding the beginnings of a new revolution. One TV channel had the caption "Blood in Buddhadeb's hands". He has also been compared to General Dyer and in a comparison it was said that General Dyer was probably the better of the two. This debate has now turned into a debate of whether industrial development is necessary. Mamata Banerjee has already called for a 12-hour bandh in Kolkata today. Many political parties have supported it. The result is Kolkata will "enjoy" a three day weekend, few buses and taxis will be burnt, some public property will be destroyed and lakhs of students will not be able to appear for the board exams that are going on.
To my mind, the two casualties of this will be truth and development. I called back my friend about half an hour back to see if he had any further updates. He said, "The situation is not bad. Most of what I was told yesterday seems to be rumors (goojob is the Bengali term that he used). But today's bandh has brought life in Kolkata to a near stand still and those who have dared to venture out are facing numerous problems." There you have it. In a matter of twelve hours, the views had taken an about turn. I have long believed that:
1. Indian media should behave more responsibly, tell the truth but not necessarily be sensationalist at all times and also look at the greater national interest (read the balanced editorial in Indian Express today)
2. Indian government and states should do better PR
And of course I wish, but it is too much to expect, that political parties could at times rise beyond petty politicking.