Discontent first began brewing among the villagers of Bhangar II block at West Bengal’s South 24 Parganas district in late 2016. In January 2017, it escalated into a violent clash. Bhangar II—which comprises 60 villages, of which 16 are involved in the agitation—is located approximately 35 kilometres from the state’s capital, Kolkata. On 17 January, hundreds of people from Khamarait, Machhi Bhanga, Tona and Gaazipur villages, which fall under the Polerhat II gram panchayat in Bhangar II—also a part of the Bhangar assembly constituency—protested the acquisition of their land for the construction of a power grid project. They blocked roads with the trunks of trees they had uprooted, set fire to police vans, brandished lathis, pelted stones, attacked police officers and broke the windscreens of police vehicles. The police, in turn, retaliated by wielding lathis of their own and using teargas shells against the protestors. Two young men, Mofijul Khan and Alam Mollah, were shot dead amid the chaos that ensued. The police have denied responsibility, claiming that they did not open fire. According to Anuj Sharma, the inspector general of police (law and order), some outsiders entered the area and fired at the villagers. “We are investigating as to who these outsiders are,” Sharma said. “The idea was to provoke police and to create a situation which would put the government in difficulty,” another senior officer told me.
Following the violent turn of events on 17 January, representatives from the government, such as Sobhandeb Chattopadhyay, the state’s power minister, and senior Trinamool Congress (TMC) leader Mukul Roy, said that the project would not be completed if the people of Bhangar did not want it. No official notification to this effect has been issued yet.
More than a decade earlier, Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of West Bengal and the head of the TMC, had protested the heavy-handed manner in which the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M)—a major constituent of the Left front, which was then in power in the state—had acquired land for a Tata factory in Singur. In September 2016, following a Supreme Court judgment that deemed the acquisition illegal, a jubilant Banerjee had returned 9,117 land records to farmers and compensated around 800 peasants from whom land had been taken forcibly. Less than a year later, she is in the uncomfortable position of facing similar opposition herself.
The protests in Bhangar are reminiscent of earlier land movements in not just Singur, but also Nandigram and Lalgarh. At Bhangar—just as in Nandigram and Lalgarh—villagers blocked roads with tree trunks to prevent the police from entering the area. Several people I spoke to told me that the police went into the homes of the residents of Bhangar and assaulted them, while the Maoists in the state, human rights organisations and students’ groups extended their support
for the movement. This landscape too, is an uncanny reflection of the past.