Homeland Security

Operation Nandigram: The Inside Story
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Issue Vol 23.1 Jan-Mar2008 | Date : 29 Dec , 2010

A Primitive Territorial Conflict

Nandigram is like any other town in Marxist West Bengal. Even the new in-your-face CPI (M) flags look familiar. Narrow proletarian streets, packed with walking feet; nothing betrays the town’s recent history, till one comes across a burnt two storeyed building. A freshly painted signage tells us, it is the CPI (M)’s office in Nandigram. The charred walls, fans twisted by a raging fire continue to remind the visiting CPI (M) cadres of a time not too long ago when anti-land acquisition activists mobilised by a political alliance led by the Trinamul Congress controlled this town and nearly all the villages that fell under its administrative jurisdiction.

From January 3rd to November 6th 2007 the Bhumi Uchched Pratirodh Committee or BUPC controlled Nandigram Blocks I and II. But now the Red Flag is back with vengeance, fluttering in all villages of Nandigram, signaling the end of the 11 month long siege by the anti-land acquisition activists under the banner of BUPC. The Central Reserve Police Force maintains a tenuous peace stretched to its limits by contesting claims. The CPI (M)’s leader in the region, Lakshman Seth, also the MP from Haldia, and the chairman of the Haldia Development Authority, under whose instructions the notice for acquisition of land for the Chemical Hub was issued in late December 2006, defended his party’s violent campaign to wrest control of Nandigram from BUPC: “We have answered in their own language they used to capture this area. I will not say any anything beyond this. It is understandable that State Government had a plan to set up a mega chemical hub. Govt wanted to acquire land. What is the fault of the CPI(M) party? Why will you attack and kill our supporters? You have the right to campaign against industrialisation, while we have the right to campaign for it. But why did they bring in firearms?”

The Union Governments version of events in Nandigram is yet to be made public.

Local level CPI (M) leaders unmindful of West Bengal’s CM’s flip-flop on the issue of letting loose armed CPI (M) cadres to recapture Nandigram backed the violent take-over. “We kept failing to make peace and so we decided to fight them in the same way they fought us,” said Ashok Bera, CPI(M) Zonal Committee, Nandigram. “They had weapons and were controlling the area. We had informed the government. But the government did  nothing,” said Mohammad Yasin, CPI(M) Zonal Committee, Nandigram.

The BUPC’s leader Bhabani Prasad Das claimed that the CPI (M) organised armed cadres, arms and ammunition much beyond what was required to counter them. “We had simple country made weapons and they were not enough to fight back the CPI(M) militia,” he said. The Union Government’s version of events in Nandigram is yet to be made public. With the CRPF maintaining a strong neutral presence an enabling situation was created for the National Human Rights Commission and the Central Bureau of Investigation to conduct their independent investigations and assessments. They sought explanations from the local police and recorded testimonies of those displaced by the bloody battle between the mercenaries sponsored by the CPI (M) and the Trinamul Congress. At the NHRC and the CBI headquarters in Delhi, the investigators are joining the dots to figure out how the CPI (M) recaptured Nandigram.

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There is enough evidentiary material available to piece together the rather fascinating territorial conflict that took place between opposing political groups in Nandigram. This region is uniquely located, surrounded by the Haldi River, the Hoogly and the Talpathi canal. It is a Muslim dominated region with genetic lineage obtained from Arakanese Muslim populace of Burma. It is an under-developed, highly illiterate and completely agrarian oriented region. So despite Nandigram being close to the industrial hub of Haldia, its people have remained divorced from any spill-over benefits of industrialisation. With waterline boundaries on two sides, the Haldi River in the East and Hooghly in the South, the Talpathy Canal in the West dividing the CPI (M) controlled Khejuri block from the BUPC controlled Nandigram and so literally became the frontline between the armed cadres of the CPI (M) and the BUPC. That is the reason why over the 11 months of clash between CPI(M) and BUPC in 2007, the images relayed on television were that of the frequent skirmishes at these two locations—Bhangabera and Tekhali bridges—over the Talpathy canal. Surprisingly the police pickets deployed at these locations never intervened to stop the violence.

the armed BUPC militia blocked all road access to Nandigram. They were helped in large measure by the tactical support given by the presence of one tactical unit of the Peoples Guerilla Army of the Communist Party of India (Maoists).

Between January and November the armed BUPC militia blocked all road access to Nandigram. They were helped in large measure by the tactical support given by the presence of one tactical unit of the People’s Guerilla Army of the Communist Party of India (Maoists). Intelligence officers told this writer that the alleged presence of Ranjit Lal and his team of sabotage specialists and guerilla warfare trainers bolstered the armed cadres of BUPC. Roads were dug up, bridges broken, culverts destroyed and sand-bag fortifications made at critical entry points into the region. A self-styled commander of the BUPC militia, Swadesh Das Adhikari, explained why this was done: “To ensure that the motorcycle gangs of the CPI (M) militia do not enter Nandigram from Khejuri, the roads were dug up. The blockades were put up because the police were moving with the CPI (M) cadres and were helping them to get in. There was no other reason. This was done for self preservation.”

The Central Forces deployed in Nandigram confirm that though there is as yet no conclusive proof of Maoist presence in Nandigram, there is enough indicative evidence to show that Maoist tactical groups might have infiltrated into the region to organise logistics, tactics and training of the armed cadres of the anti-land acquisition group, BUPC. “What strategy the Maoists had in this area or whether they were not in this area, whether they just imparted training to some people in the area, this matter has to be looked into in detail. But the recovery of mines, Maoist literature, training manuals in Telegu language and other arms and ammunition definitely indicate their presence in the region,” said Alok Raj, DIG, CRPF. “There must have been some tactical-strategic support. It cannot be ruled out. But it needs further investigation for conclusive proof. But the trends show an indication, specially with the seizure of some literature,and  some land mines the seizure of some landmines,” he added.

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The CRPF personnel are experienced in counter insurgency operations against the Maoists guerrillas. And they know that when in the line of fire the Maoists are known to fight back. But when CPI (M)’s armed militia launched Operation Nandigram on November 6, 2007, it hardly faced any resistance as it broke the siege of Nandigram by the Bhumi Ucched Pratirodh Committee, an organisation representing the anti-land acquisition protestors. “Had there been a very strong armed squad of Maoists in this area they would have definitely retaliated whatever attack that was taking place,” said DIG, CRPF, Alok Raj. With the CRPF discovery graves of unknown and unclaimed bodies, the last word on the Nandigram conflict is yet to be spoken and cast in stone. The West Bengal government has ordered the state CID to carry out DNA analysis to identify the persons whose charred bones and portions of skull were exhumed from five crudely-dug graves near Nandigram. Are these graves of CPI (M) supporters? Or are they Trinamul Congress activists? In Nandigram there are many unanswered questions. No wonder the Central Forces sees its role as a semi-counter insurgency operation or semi-CI Ops. “It’s definitely a semi-CI Ops situation along with inputs of law and order handling also,” said DIG Raj.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

VK Shashikumar

is a Systems Strategist and writes occasionally on Defence and Strategic Affairs. Recipient of 'Ramnath Goenka Award for Excellence in Journalism'

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