By Stevan Kirschbaum
Nandigram, West Bengal, India
For 11 months the people’s movement of Nandigram has defied the full power of the Indian state, military, police and armed death squads in a struggle to halt a planned “chemical hub” that would destroy their district.
Nandigram comprises 38 villages in the East Midnapore district of West Bengal, located 60 miles southwest of Kolkata (formerly called Calcutta). Its population of 250,000 consists mostly of peasant farmers, laborers and fishers.
The people of Nandigram trace their history back nearly 2,000 years. They take great pride in their heritage of fighting to defend their land. One village is named Pichabani—“We shall not step back”—in memory of their successful struggle in 1942 to drive the British colonialists out of the area.
In December 2006, the people of Nandigram were given notice that nearly one quarter of their land would be seized and 70,000 people be evicted from their homes. Some 127 primary schools, four secondary schools, three high schools, 112 temples, 42 masjids and countless houses, markets, shops and sacred burial grounds were to be destroyed and the land given to the Salim Indonesia group—a real estate “developer.”
Salim is part of a growing number of dirty middlemen who develop the infrastructure—roads, bridges and so on—to literally pave the way for corporate special economic zones. In Nandigram the SEZ was to be a chemical hub led by Dow Chemical, infamous for the development of napalm used against the Vietnamese people.
Dow is also hated in India since it bought up Union Carbide. On the night of Dec. 3, 1984, a pesticide plant of Union Carbide released 40 tons of methyl isocyanate gas in the city of Bhopal, killing upwards of 5,000 people. The disaster is ranked as one of the world’s worst industrial catastrophes due to negligence.
The people of Nandigram are also aware of the fate of Singur, a nearby area where lands were taken away and the peasants brutalized to make way for the Tata Small automobile project. They were determined not to accept a similar fate.
They immediately organized to fight back. On Jan. 3 of this year, 15,000 people assembled at the village governing office to protest. Police opened fire and many were injured. Three days later, over 50,000 people gathered and announced the formation of the Bhumi Ucched Pratirodh Committee (BUPC)—Committee Against Land Grabbing and Eviction. This highly disciplined, representative body has led the struggle. The next day, state authorities fired into a crowd of protesters, killing three, including a 14-year-old boy.
The people then escalated to direct action in defense of their land. For the next three months, house-by-house and village-by-village, BUPC organized to establish effective people’s power. Roads were dug up, bridges blocked and barricades set up to defend Nandigram by any means necessary. By March 2007 the people had effective control of Nandigram and the state could not move forward on the SEZ.
It was at this point that the state unleashed a vicious terror campaign.
On March 14, in the village of Gokul Nagar, police, soldiers and armed civilian thugs fired into a crowd of protesters who were worshipping to a goddess to save their homes. State forces employed the most cruel and savage of tactics, killing at least 14 and injuring hundreds with beatings and shootings. Rape was an organized police tactic, with hundreds of documented cases of gang rapes. Many people were “disappeared.”
But the people would not be defeated. They regrouped, reorganized and continued to hold Nandigram. News of their inspiring battle spread and they received solidarity and support from labor unionists, social justice activists, the urban poor from Kolkata and beyond, cultural workers and actors. All came to lend their support.
As part of the campaign to inflict maximum punishment and also cover up their atrocities against the people, state authorities attempted to deny them medical care and falsified the medical documentation of deaths, injuries and treatment. A courageous group of doctors and medical workers, the Medical Service Center, nevertheless went to Nandigram to set up a people’s clinic. They ministered to the people’s medical needs and have been steadfast advocates for their rights.
The MSC has produced a documented, detailed report on the deaths and injuries—Health Spectra, Vol. 17, Special Nandigram Issue. This horrifying catalog of atrocities is available through email@example.com. (The International Action Center has posted this video on YouTube—type in “Nandigram.”)
Unable to go forward with its plans, the government announced it would scrap the SEZ. The people’s movement, however, vowed to remain vigilant. Faced with a full-scale state coverup, the movement demanded justice, a full inquiry into the state’s atrocities, prosecution of those responsible for heinous crimes, and reparations and restitution for damages.
The breadth of the solidarity movement forced the Kolkata High Court to take up the case, but it remained silent on its findings for months.
On Nov. 6 and 12, 2007, the government unleashed yet another terrible assault on Nandigram. Nearly 100 people were killed, 652 houses were ransacked, 119 homes were burned to the ground, 9,205 people were left homeless and more than 200 rapes were reported. Many people are missing to this day. Villagers state that they witnessed government forces and their paid thugs carrying away bodies to be burned in the nearby Janani brick field, in the town of Kahejuree.
On Dec. 6, authorities discovered the charred bone and skull remains of bodies believed to be those killed in November. Notwithstanding all these odds, the people refuse to give in and continue to return to their burned-out homes, staying with neighbors and fashioning makeshift tents.
Solidarity campaign escalates
The movement in India, and in Kolkata in particular, has organized exemplary solidarity. On Nov. 14, a massive solidarity protest of 100,000 people took to the streets of Kolkata in support of Nandigram. Political activists, jurists, trade unionists, professors, “Bollywood” directors and actors, college students, youth workers, environmentalists and doctors are raising one voice to demand justice for Nandigram and the truth about the state’s criminal actions.
On Nov. 16, the High Court finally released its findings declaring that the state’s actions in Nandigram were “unconstitutional.” However, instead of taking action against those responsible, the court ordered further investigation.
Now the press are carrying daily stories that support the claims of the BUPC and the people of Nandigram. Witnesses have come forward with video and still photos of the rapes committed. (The Statesman, Dec. 1) Missing bodies have been discovered. (Press Trust of India, Dec. 7) Finally a few of the thugs have been charged and taken into custody. However, 10 of these thugs had earlier been picked up and quickly released without charge by the state authorities.
Nandigram has now entered the vocabulary of class struggle in India. The Dec. 1 Hindustan Times carried an article headlined “Nandigram re-run alleged in Orissa.” The article refers to the government’s campaign in another district to browbeat protesters into submission as “the Nandigram strategy.” But the business pages of the Indian press are filled with panicky articles assuring future imperialist SEZ investors that India is safe and that Nandigram is an isolated case.
Global imperialism’s favorite tactic
A “special economic zone” is global imperialism’s model of super-exploitation at its most severe. In different countries the name changes—free enterprise zones, maquiladoras, SEZs—but the tactics are the same. The people are ruthlessly driven from the land to pave the way for unrestricted corporate exploitation. Corporations have virtually totalitarian authority, ignoring all labor standards, hiring and firing workers with no redress, paying starvation wages with no social benefits, and ignoring any environmental protections.
In the United States, the union movement in an earlier period fought against what it called the “runaway shop.” Now the runaway is global.
Why would Dow Chemical pay union wages to workers in a plant in the United States when it can pay SEZ workers pennies a day? Dow just announced it was terminating more than 1,000 jobs in Charleston, S.C. In the state of West Bengal, over 56,000 firms have been shut down while at the same time SEZ industries are cropping up all over India.
An ironic and cruel feature of the Nandigram struggle is that, since the 1970s, the Indian capitalist state in this section of West Bengal has been administered by a party calling itself the Communist Party of India-Marxist. However, the CPI-M’s shameful, treacherous and unfathomably savage repression of the BUPC and of the people’s movement generally has forever branded it as an all-too-willing servant of global imperialism and of the Indian capitalist state. Its program and actions do the greatest injury to the history and name of communism and Marxism. In Nandigram and elsewhere, genuine communist, socialist and other progressive forces are organizing and leading the struggle against the SEZs, global imperialism and the Indian capitalist state. It is these “new,” truly revolutionary organizations that represent the future of the Indian struggle for socialism. Nandigram provides yet another, if not the most severe, lesson on the fatal and tragic error of communists joining and administering a capitalist state. (For more on the role of the CPI-M, see “Repression and a false policy,”.)
IAC solidarity mission
On Nov. 29, an International Action Center delegation led by former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark joined with West Bengali activists to visit the area of the attacks in Gokul Nagar. The state authorities had sealed off all roads leading into Nandigram both to increase their isolation and keep evidence of the November atrocities from the media.
Heavily armed police accompanied the delegation. There was concern this would make residents fearful to speak freely for fear of reprisals. But as the IAC arrived at a refugee camp at the Brajomohn Tewari School, scores of victims came forward. One after the other gave their stories of suffering and injuries sustained at the hands of police and armed mercenaries.
A mother showed the wounds of her 10-year-old son, Bulu Mir, who had been shot through the head but miraculously survived. A 30-year-old woman gave moving testimony of how she had been gang raped. She is one of more than 200 women, ranging from children to elders, who have been brutally raped in a plan to punish the community. Daughters and mothers were raped in front of their fathers.
The IAC surveyed homes that had been burned to the ground and then looted of all belongings. The worst attacks were clearly reserved for leaders of the BUPC. Roshmi Das Adhikari, 90, told how state-sponsored forces had set fire to her home while she was inside. Despite everything, the people expressed their determination to stay in Nandigram.
At an impromptu press conference at the close of the tour, Ramsey Clark declared: “We do not need any more Dow Chemical companies in India. We need more food, housing and schools. We need health care and opportunities for every man, woman and child. The people of Nandigram have stood up for us all. Nandigram should be the battle cry for the future of humanity.”
Today corporations have globalized their exploitation. It is critical that the movement globalize the resistance. Messages of support and solidarity may be sent to Secretary Nanda Patra of the BUPC, care of the All India Anti-Imperialist Forum, 77/2/1 Lenin Sarani, Kolkata 700 013, India.
Steve Kirschbaum is Chief Shop Steward, USW L. 8751, Boston school Bus Drivers