Families of Nandigram “martyrs” divided on religious lines, many express anger against TMC

Aloka Bala Das' son, Govind, was killed in the police firing on 14 March, 2007. She is now critical of the TMC. “Didi gave the responsibility of looking after us to Suvendu dada,” Aloka said. “But isn’t she also responsible to check what is our condition personally, atleast once a year?" Amit Bhardwaj
31 March, 2021

In a crucial electoral battle in West Bengal, the chief minister Mamata Banerjee and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Suvendu Adhikari, a former Trinamool Congress leader, will fight for the Nandigram constituency on 1 April. The seat holds a key place in the state’s history—once a Left dominated region, it became central to Banerjee’s rise to power in 2011, after the TMC galvanised protests against the incumbent Left Front government in a mass movement against land acquisition. Among Banerjee’s supporters at the time were the families of 14 villagers who were killed in police firing in 2007 during a crackdown against the protest. Though the families of these villagers had previously always supported the TMC, conversations with many of them revealed that their allegiances seem to be shifting. In a political climate marked by religious polarisation, the families of the Nandigram martyrs, too, appeared divided on the same lines—the Muslim families remained loyal to the TMC, while the Hindus were angry with Banerjee.

At noon on 25 March, the usually quiet roads of Nandigram were abuzz with activity. Women, clad in saffron sarees with lotus flowers printed all over, were marching like a regiment. The men, many in white t-shirts with the same symbol or a cap with the Bharatiya Janata Party’s logo, were playing dhols—drums—and bansuris—flutes— among other local musical instruments. The air was filled with enthusiasm and energy. Every three-four hundred metres, such groups were coming out of their localities and taking the road towards Sona Chura, a village in the Nandigram administrative block.

These marches—that resembled a saffron carnival—culminated at an open field near the Tekhali Bridge, where the scene was another sea of saffron. A massive saffron and green tent, erected on the fields, to accommodate an audience of three to five thousand people was filled. This jubilant crowd of thousands, who had gathered from three assembly constituencies in and around Nandigram, had come to hear a campaign speech by the Uttar Pradesh chief minister Adityanath. When Adityanath’s chopper landed, the crowd welcomed it with chants of Jai Shree Ram.

The response to the rally was a sign of the support for the BJP in Nandigram and the close electoral battle between Suvendu and Banerjee. Suvendu, a two-time member of parliament from the TMC, was once considered a close confidante of Banerjee and was her commander-in-chief in Nandigram. In December 2020, Adhikari quit the TMC and joined the BJP.

Prior to 2007, the Nandigram assembly constituency, in the East Midnapore district, was a strong-hold of the Left Front, led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist). That began to change after the Left Front government proposed the area as a site for a chemical factory to be built by the Salim group, an Indonesian conglomerate. Villagers rose in protest and Nandigram became the site of a mass movement against land acquisition. The TMC played a key role in spurring the protest against the Left Front. A similar movement took place in Singur, a village in the Hooghly district, against land acquisition for the Tata group’s Nano car plant. The Singur and Nandigram movements became a watershed moment in Bengal’s history and played a crucial role in Banerjee’s rise to power.

In Nandigram, the protest against the land acquisition was led under the banner of Bhumi Uchhed Pratirodh Committee, or BUPC. Many BUPC activists later joined the TMC. On 14 March 2007, the police fired at and killed 14 villagers during a crackdown on the protest. Banerjee stormed the streets and took the state government head on. The killings sparked a backlash and became a pivotal factor in the eventual defeat of the Left Front government. The TMC gained ground in the subsequent panchayat polls, the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, and finally defeated the CPM in the 2011 assembly elections.

Since the 14 March carnage, the TMC has maintained that they are the custodians of the families of those killed in the police firing—who are known locally as the Nandigram martyrs. In January 2014, a 130-feet Shaheed Minar, or martyrs’ monument, was erected in memory of the Nandigram martyrs on the initiative of Suvendu, then a TMC MP. Year after year, Banerjee meets the families of the 14 villagers on 21 July—a day marked by the TMC as Shaheed Diwas, or Martyrs’ Day—and pays tribute to them in Kolkata, the state capital. As a token of gratitude, each year, Banerjee gives Rs 10,000 and a saree or shawl to each of these families. The TMC chose the date of 21 July because it also marks the anniversary of a police firing in 1993, when the police killed 13 Congress workers who were protesting near the Writers building, then the state headquarters. At the time, Banerjee was a member of the state’s Youth Congress.

Through the last decade, the families of the Nandigram martyrs have always extended support to the TMC. However, their allegiance seems to now be wavering. In March, I travelled to Nandigram and met many of the families of those killed in the police firing. The families acknowledged that they were taken care of. Yet, they were divided on who gets the credit. The Muslim families steadfastly hailed the TMC and Banerjee. Meanwhile, some from the Hindu community said that it was “Suvendu dada” who had been with them for the past 14 years. Several families had a list of grievances, and held the local TMC leaders responsible for it. They also questioned why the Banerjee did not meet them in Nandigram after she rose to power. The confusion and division among the families is a window into the religious polarisation in the state, and what is transpiring in the Nandigram battlefield at large.

Abdul Daiyun Khan, a 72-year-old frail man, is the convenor of a committee of the Nandigram martyrs’ families. He told me that ever since Banerjee announced that she will be contesting from this constituency, he has been interviewed by several local TV channels. When I met him, there was construction work going on at his single storey house.

“We had started the construction of the house years back with the money that I had received as compensation from the Buddhadeb Bhattacharya government,” he said referring to the former chief minister of the CPI(M)-led government. “Now we are trying to finish the remaining work.” Abdul lives with his eldest son Ismail Khan, and his younger son, Maidul Khan.

His other son, Imadul Khan, was seventeen when he was shot by the police on 14 March, 2007. “The two of us were more like friends,” Maidul told me. “We used to study together in the same class. That morning, we left the house together with an agenda to stop the police from entering our villages. It was not just us but everyone from our villages, be it elderly, children or women, who had pledged not to let the government grab our lands and homes. When the crackdown began and the police started to fire gunshots, everyone ran for lives. It was utter chaos. I managed to flee.”

Initially, their family members heard that it was Maidul who sustained the bullet injury. “I returned home late in the evening,” Maidul said. “When I reached, we got to know that my brother Imadul was shot in the stomach by the police. I rushed to the hospital. He was already dead.”

Recalling the 2007 protest, Maidul continued, “Back then, it didn’t strike us that we brothers were too young to confront the police forces. All that we and every other person in these villages were concerned about was our homes, our farmlands. If they grab our lands, what would we do? Where will we go?” The family owns five acres of cultivable land, and primarily grows paddy, lentils and potato.

Even 14 years after the carnage, neither Maidul nor his father have forgiven the CPI(M). “I still hold a grudge,” Maidul said. “I lost my brother, why won’t I have anger against the CPM? But we have a bigger regret. Those for whom we fought, due to whom many of us died, have chosen to abandon us. And has joined the BJP.” When asked who he was referring to, he answered, “Suvendu Adhikari.” Maidul continued, “People died because of him. He used to instruct over the phone. He didn’t save the land. We made sacrifices for the movement and Suvendu has sold out that struggle to the BJP for his own benefit.”

Suvendu and his family were unofficially given the responsibility to look after East Mindapore and the Nandigram martyrs’ families. Adhikari’s father, Sisir Adhikari, was a senior TMC leader and MP from Kanthi Lok Sabha constituency. His brother, Dipyendu Adhikari was elected as TMC’s MP from Tamluk in 2019. Another sibling, Soumendu is the administrator of the Contai municipality. Suvendu was also the chairman of Haldia Development Authority, a body that carries out infrastructure development work in the Haldia region, a key port area. In many ways, the Adhikari family was running the entire district of East Midnapore. Months before the assembly election, except for Dipyendu, all three Adhikaris joined the BJP.

“Suvendu and his family are traitors,” both Maidul and Abdul said. “When Suvendu got COVID-19, Hindus and Muslims together prayed for his well-being. I offered prayers for him,” Abdul added. “Today, he is spitting venom against us. He, along with BJP leaders, is calling us Bangladeshi. Who is Bangladeshi here? How dare he use such terms for us?”

Despite the BJP’s inroads into West Bengal, Abdul feels indebted to Banerjee for standing with the Nandigram martyrs’ families. “We don’t need money,” he said. “Didi has given us respect. No government, no leader can look after families like us for a lifetime. All that we expect from her is respect. She meets us every year in Kolkata. And that’s more than enough.” The children from Abdul’s house attend a nearby government school. Their medical needs are largely fulfilled at the Nandigram Super Speciality Hospital, which the state set up during the TMC regime. The family openly supports the TMC.

Whatever minor complaints they had were against the local TMC leaders, but not Banerjee. Abdul held Suvendu responsible for creating hurdles in his ability to directly communicate with Banerjee. “Whenever, Didi visited Midnapore, she would call us,” he said. “But Suvendu didn’t let us meet her. See how things have changed after he left the party.  In the past month, we have managed to meet Didi twice. In fact, in one of these meetings, she even served us tea herself.”

Sheikh Abdul Malick, a 52-year-old resident of Nandigram, echoed similar sentiments. He lost his younger brother, Salim, in the 14 March firing. Malick is a landless farmer and lives in a mud house near the Shaheed Chowk in Nandigram’s Garchakraberia locality.

“We were eight brothers” he said. “While I was second in the line, Salim was seventh. I can’t expect the TMC to take care of each of our families. Didi meets us every year in Kolkata, gives us Rs 10,000 and shawl as a gesture of respect. That’s enough for us.” He added, “One of my brothers was given a job as promised by Didi. What else would we want?”

According to Malick, Suvendu had betrayed Bengal by joining the BJP. Malick further spoke of the development work that has been done in Nandigram during the ten years of the Banerjee government. “We have roads even inside the villages, electricity has reached every village, a super speciality hospital has come up, the government schools are better now,” he said. “Didi has transformed this area. Whatever discrepancies and corruption has been done, it’s by the village-level TMC leaders.”

After meeting Abdul and Malick, I next met the family of Badal Mondal. Here, the narrative differed. Badal was in his forties when he was killed in the 14 March firings. His wife Kavita broke into tears while recalling what had transpired in 2007. She had to bring up three daughters and a son as a single mother.

“I have not received anything from the Mamata Banerjee government besides Rs 10,000 that Didi gives to the 14 martyrs’ families in Kolkata,” Kavita said. “It was Buddhadeb babu who had given me Rs 5 lakh after his government killed my husband. I got two of my daughters married from that compensation money and made the foundation for this house.” She added, “Since 2007, it is Suvendu dada who has looked after us.”

She emphasised how Suvendu has remained available for the family for the past 14 years and said that he used to give them a Rs 5,000 monthly allowance until recently. “Dada looked after my family. He made sure my son gets a job. Even today, he sends us Rs 2,000 every month. ”

When asked about Banerjee, Kavita was visibly annoyed. “What has Didi done for us?” she asked. “She had promised a government job for a family. Where is that job? I had sought her help to get my son Biswajeet enrolled in the medical college. But that help never came. I didn’t have money to pay Rs 70-80 lakhs for his course, and the chief minister didn’t offer a seat in a government college. He eventually graduated from a local degree college and works in a private firm.”

She added that while Banerjee did not meet them in Nandigram, at their homes, Suvendu met them every three-four months. During Bengal’s Durga Pujo festival, she said he would meet them with a saree and sweets.  

Kavita Mandal's husband, Badal, was killed in the 14 March, 2007 police firing. “Since 2007, it is Suvendu dada who has looked after us," she said. “What has Didi done for us? Amit Bhardwaj

A kilometre from Kavita’s home, I met Aloka Bala Das. She, too, was critical of the TMC. Along with her teenage son, Govind Das, she had set out to confront the police on 14 March 2007. Govind did not return home that day. Four days later, they traced his body at the government hospital in the district headquarters. “I can’t forget those days of terror,” Aloka broke down in tears. “Those memories still haunt me.” In 2008, ahead of the panchayat polls, the family had joined the TMC.

Aloka said that as promised by the party, Gaurang Das, her younger son, got a government job. He works as a peon in the Indian Railways. However, she had a long list of grievances against Banerjee. “Didi and her party had promised us that they would give us a house and we would be given a pension,” she said. “Besides, the government job, no other promise has been fulfilled.”

Alok added that her family failed to get any help from the TMC when her husband fell sick. Talking about her husband, she broke down again and appeared inconsolable. He had passed away in 2019. “Didi gave the responsibility of looking after us to Suvendu dada,” Aloka said. “But isn’t she also responsible to check as to what is our condition personally, at least once a year? How can she shrug off the responsibility?”

Aloka said that despite filling the form twice, she is yet to get a widow pension. “I have not received a Swasthya Sathi card”—Banerjee’s flagship health-insurance scheme—Aloka said. Referring to the local village head, she continued, “I had filled the form but the pradhan sent me back empty-handed. We have not gotten the government toilet either.” She added even her 100-year-old mother-in-law is yet to get the old-age pension. 

However, she did not seem to have grievances against Suvendu. “Voting is my private matter, I can’t talk about it,” she said. “But I don’t have any complaints against Suvendu Adhikari. My only grievance is with Banerjee.”

I next travelled to the Sona Chura village in Nandigram. Flags of the BJP and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh seemed to outnumber those of the TMC. I met the family of Pushpendu Mandal, who was 26 years old when he was killed in the 14 March police firing.  I spoke to his mother Subhashini Mandal, who is in her seventies.

She is the meye”—the daughter—“of Bengal and we respect her as a daughter,” Subhashini said, referring to Banerjee. “But she doesn’t respect us. She has not delivered the promises made to us. I am a mother who sacrificed her son for the Nandigram movement and yet she failed to stand by her own words.”

Primarily, Subhashini was irate because her younger son was not offered a government job and because she did not get aid for building her house. Even in this family, the anger against the TMC local leaders was at its peak.

Somlata Mandal, Subhashini’s 17-year-old granddaughter, studies in the local government school. She got a bicycle under a Banerjee government policy, and has been enrolled as a beneficiary in Kanyashree, another flagship scheme of the state government that provides an annual scholarship for adolescent girl students. However, when asked her opinion on the Banerjee government, Somlata responded, “I have received benefits of the chief minister’s schemes. But she didn’t fulfil the promises made to my family. How could I ignore that fact?”

The house right next to Somlata’s belonged to the family of another villager killed during the Nandigram movement. When I visited, BJP flags flew hanging at the entrance. Bharat Mandal was killed in a police crackdown in January 2007, a few months before the 14 March firing. I spoke to Kalpana Mandal, his daughter-in-law. The family’s financial condition was poor and they too expressed anger at the TMC government. Kalpana alleged that a local TMC leader had swindled a majority of the compensation money that they had received after Bharat Mandal died in January 2007. “I can’t take the name, else my house could be attacked in the middle of the night,” Kalpana said.

She raised another common complaint against TMC local leaders in East Midnapore—discrepancies in the disbursement of the compensation after the Amphan cyclone hit Bengal in 2020. “Those were days of horror,” Kalpana said. “I had to hide under the bed to save myself and my three-month old daughter. It felt as if the house would come crashing down. And yet, we didn’t receive the Amphan compensation. Who is to be blamed for it?” she asked. However, this family too had no specific grievance against Suvendu and noted that he had met them during the Pujos.

In addition to the families of those killed in police firing, I met the family of a Nishikant Mandal, a Nandigram resident who was killed by the Maoists in 2009. He, too, is considered a martyr in Nandigram. Nishikant was a former CPI(M) member who had turned into a BUPC leader during the Nandigram agitation. In 2013, the family joined the BJP and had since been working with the party. His family was present at Adityanath’s rally.

At the time of his murder, 58-year-old Nishikant was a gram pradhan—village head—and was associated with the TMC. His wife and son were both elected to the village panchayat in 2013 on TMC tickets. Subsequently, they fell out with the party. I spoke to Satyajeet Mandal, Nishikant’s son. “In 2013, post a dispute over a school management committee election, I disassociated with the TMC,” he said. “After a few months, my team and I started to work for the BJP but from behind closed doors. It was only in January this year that I formally joined the BJP.” Moreover, Manashi Mandal, his mother, is one of the proposers of Suvendu, as the BJP Nandigram candidate.

Satyajeet said that in hindsight, he suspected the involvement of local TMC leaders in his father’s killing. He called Banerjee a “habitual liar” and accused her of indulging in appeasement politics and disrespecting the sentiments of Hindus. “The kind of damage that the CPM government couldn’t do in 34 years, Banerjee had managed to do in merely 10 years,” he said. “Her government introduced corruption at all levels. They are corrupt to the core.”

In many ways, Banerjee faces a tough electoral battle in Nandigram. Like the families of the Hindu Nandigram martyrs, the BJP has convinced a chunk of Hindu voters that Suvendu delivered the development projects and it is he who remains available for them on the ground. Further, the allegations of corruption and the simmering anger against the local TMC leaders pose a hard challenge for the incumbent party. Like the martyrs’ families, the voters of Nandigram too seem to be divided along religious lines.

I also spoke to Suvendu. He blamed the local TMC leaders for whatever grievances the martyrs’ families have. He told me that it is “due to the corruption of the local TMC leaders that these families are facing problems.” He added, “In my personal capacity, I have always tried to remain accessible to these families and helped them, even financially, as much as I could.”

However, the TMC leadership blames the Adhikaris. I spoke to Sukhendu Shekhar Roy, a TMC MP who has been camping in Nandigram since 3 March. “There is no disconnect between the TMC and these martyrs’ families,” he said. “If at all, there is any failure in delivering the promises, Suvendu and his family should be held responsible.” He added, “Not only for the martyr families, but they should also be held accountable for the complaints of irregularities in disbursement of Amphan compensation and the mismanagement of welfare schemes of our government. After all, that family has dominated this area for far too long, how can they disown the responsibility?”