Spectacularly Enough, ever since the unplanned lockdown imposed by the Modi government in late March, the ongoing people’s movement in Bhangor has reached new heights, with women and men taking to the streets on a regular basis to seize their rights. As a result, in Bhangor, at least, the government and administration have been compelled to actually give the people what they have promised – rations, relief after Amphan and special relief to those whose livelihoods have suffered due to the lockdown – instead of keeping the same confined only to notices and paperwork, as has happened in most other parts of the state as well as the country.
Although it is true that there have been sporadic struggles on similar issues in some other parts of the state, with success being achieved in a few places, the struggle in Bhangor has surpassed them all in terms of grit, vigour and magnitude. This deserves special mention, because only a couple of years ago, in August 2018 to be precise, when the historic anti-powergrid movement of Bhangor had forced the government to enter into dialogue with the Jomi Jibika Bastutantro O Poribesh Raksha Committee (Committee for the Protection of Land, Livelihood, Ecology and the Environment), that is the People’s Committee leading the movement, the entire leadership – both the political leadership of CPI(ML) Red Star as well as the local leadership of Bhangor, had been mercilessly maligned by a large section of the ‘left and democratic forces’ for ‘surrendering’ to the government.
Indeed, leaflets and pamphlets signed by leaders of these ‘left and democratic forces’, accusing us of ushering in a ‘Black Day’ and signing a ‘black deal’ with the government, were circulated in Bhangor and elsewhere and posted rampantly on social media. We, especially the authors of this article, were labelled as ‘traitors’ and our detractors glibly claimed that through a nefarious, underhand deal with the Trinamool government, we had prepared the ground for the Trinamool to firmly establish its autocratic rule all over Bhangor, and very soon we would be forcing the villagers to shout slogans hailing discredited Trinamool leaders. Our detractors, many of them leaders of ‘left’ organizations, stooped to the level of deliberately and actively circulating stories of our being gifted with a crores-worth flat in a posh part of the city in return of ‘surrendering’ the movement!
What had, in fact, happened? The main demand of the movement, from the beginning was that the government should open an unconditional dialogue with the Committee leading the movement. The government had responded by slamming terror charges against practically the entire leadership of the Committee, locking up people in jail for months and obstinately refusing to begin any dialogue. Rather, ministers of the Trinamool government openly claimed that they would go all out to crush the Committee leaders like so many ants. However, after a fierce struggle of 2 years, and especially when it became abundantly clear that even the arrest of the principal leader of the movement, Alik Chakraborty, would by no means succeed in suppressing the movement, which by then had spread across an entire Block and was rapidly spreading to other areas, the government was forced to eat humble pie and convene a meeting. Not only so, the government was forced to sit for a dialogue with not just the village leaders of the Committee but also those whom it had always labelled as ‘outsiders’ and steadfastly refused any interaction with. The meetings with the government went on for 3 weeks. When the dialogue began, Alik Chakraborty was still in jail (actually in police custody). At the first meeting, only Committee representatives of the village, and no political organizer from outside, were allowed. The village activists firmly told the government representatives that the Committee included political organizers from outside too and they would have to be invited to the next meeting, otherwise the Committee would not attend any more meetings. Thus, at the second meeting, 2 political organizers who were also members of the Committee participated along with the village activists. This meeting ended with all participants telling the government that no dialogue would be meaningful, or need be continued, if Alik Chakraborty was not released forthwith. The government buckled and Alik, who by then had already obtained bail in most of the 40-odd cases against him, soon obtained bail in the remaining cases. The government had no choice but to invite him to the next meeting. After a series of meetings, in which 47 people from the villages and 3 political organisers (that is 50 Committee representatives in all) participated, the government being represented by the District Magistrate, the Superintendent of Police, a representative from Nabanna (WB government headquarters), PGCIL officers and a host of other officers, a solution was finally reached.
The government was forced to sign a written agreement with the people of Bhangor, backing away from the initial powergrid project, promising compensation on a scale unheard of in the history of popular movements in recent years and, also unprecedentedly, declaring in writing that all criminal cases against activists in the course of the movement would be gradually withdrawn. It was in Bhangor that for the first time in India peasants were given compensation for electric lines running high over their land.
This historic agreement – which could have been used as an example for other ongoing and future people’s movements – was treated with unconcealed contempt by those ‘left and democratic’ forces who had wanted the strife and bloodshed to continue unabated in Bhangor without any resolution. Their ill-formed idea had been that if the strife continued, if more village people were injured or imprisoned or killed (while they themselves remained safe in the city), then they could take out fashionable rallies against the government from time to time and decry the lack of democracy in West Bengal, all from the safety of their offices or drawing rooms. The Trinamool government had made it very clear from the beginning that its targets were CPI(ML) Red Star and, later, to some extent, MKP, apart from the village people, and that no one outside these two political streams were likely to be arrested. In fact, throughout the course of the movement, no one from any political or democratic organization, apart from the aforementioned, were arrested. So most of these sections actually wanted no resolution to the problem because they were safe and, if any more bloodshed occurred, it would be common villagers who would be injured or killed, and they could ‘capitalise’ on these atrocities to secure their vested interests. The CPIM was particularly irked by the resolution of the problem because if the atrocities on the people of Bhangor continued till election year 2021, then their rapidly sinking electoral prospects would receive a much-needed boost. The CPIM spent several pages of the Bengali daily ‘Ganashakti’ in maligning us as traitors.
The problem is that all this led to a handful of ordinary people, supporters of the movement, to become confused and first begin to wonder and then believe that the CPI(ML) Red Star leadership had betrayed the movement and sold their souls to the Trinamool.
However, the people of Bhangor, who had faced the guns and bombs, police cases and atrocities, for two years, and were yet determined not to surrender, decided that the question had to be settled democratically. A series of village committee meetings were held, with thousands participating, where the various aspects of the movement and the pros and cons of signing an agreement with the government were discussed threadbare and thoroughly debated. The end result was that the people of Bhangor, almost unanimously, were united in their support of the historic agreement. In this they showed far greater political maturity than the so-called ‘left and democratic forces’. They realized what a great victory would be achieved by the agreement with the government, how enormously it would expand the democratic space and were determined to build on it and further consolidate their wins. The small section of left and democratic forces, which stood by our side and resolutely upheld the agreement, advised us not to be discouraged by the slew of slandering that we were facing because time alone could and would prove the truth.
They were absolutely correct. Today, we can hold our heads high and declare that we had committed neither crime nor mistake in signing the agreement with the government. The Bhangor agreement has not only resulted in consolidating the unity of the people of Bhangor, but also encouraged the people to carry on the struggle in a greater sphere. Just as they are fighting to extract and realize every promise the government made, so also are they leading rallies for the release of Varvara Rao, Dr Kafeel Khan and other political prisoners with equal vigour. The torch rallies and demonstrations they organized, demanding the release of political prisoners, in recent weeks, were indeed massive and magnificent.
At the same time, the people have developed a strong local leadership from among themselves. Today the situation is such that the people’s movement in Bhangor is strong enough to fight against the administration and win any local demand that was being denied to them. The local leadership has matured to the extent that this is happening frequently, they are leading and winning such struggles frequently, without the physical presence of any political leadership from outside.
Recently, when corruption was detected in the distribution of NREGA work, they gheraoed the Panchayat office, blocked roads, and compelled the administration to immediately rectify matters. When corruption was detected in the distribution of relief materials after the Amphan cyclone, they again gheraoed the responsible officers, compelled them to initiate enquiry against those who had undeservedly received relief material by virtue of their political clout, and provide money and materials to those who were truly affected by Amphan. Around 1150 families affected by Amphan, whose names had been submitted to the administration by the Committee, have received compensation so far – a feat once more unmatched in most parts of the state.
The people of Bhangor are now capable of crushing any unholy force that tries to rear its ugly head in the region.
This is possibly the only region in West Bengal where the BJP has not been able to unfurl its flag. The Trinamool’s Arabul Islam – who only three years ago had been the undisputed leader and much feared henchman of the region – and his men have gone into hiding. They dare not enter the area dominated by the Committee. Though Arabul Islam’s gang seized some Panchayat seats in the area by the simple expedient of not allowing elections to be held, their Panchayat members are now not allowed to enter the Panchayat office, or even the area, by the people of Bhangor. The villagers have brought a no-confidence motion against them and submitted a mass petition to the district magistrate to this effect. The Panchayat is now solely run by the 5 members of the Committee who were able to contest the elections, and thus win, and run in a manner that has people saying that not in the last 40 years has a fraction of the work been done that is now being regularly by the Panchayat!
Still, sad but true, some remain under the misapprehension that the movement in Bhangor is long dead, we have allowed the powergrid to be built, Trinamool has got its way and some even told us that they had heard that the BJP was making inroads into Bhangor!
Be that as it may, the fact remains that the movement had compelled the government to sign an agreement and back away from its original powergrid project and reduce it to a regional substation. Through this agreement, not only were the present interests of the movement secured, the oath was taken to go ahead determinedly towards the future, long-term objectives. The spirit of the fighting people of Bhangor is today proving that, back then, the leadership had not been wrong.
Actually, just as there is contradiction when a struggle begins, so also is contradiction present at every bend and curve of the movement. In the course of such contradictions, it may even be possible to be misunderstood or misjudged by friends. But if we are overwhelmed by the fear of being misunderstood or even, maligned by our friends, then we will cease to be guided in the interest of the development of the movement. Such shortsightedness, though it may help keep our ‘friends’, will definitely lead the entire movement into jeopardy.
The task of the leadership is to analyse and understand every bend and curve of the movement and guide it towards its final objective, whatever the temptation may be to succumb to the pull of populism.
Let us end with an example from the freedom struggle of neighbouring Bangladesh. Shortly before the National Liberation War started, when the Pakistani army had begun to brutalise Bangladesh, President of Pakistan Yahya Khan, fearing the retaliation that the Bangladeshis had already started, inviting the leaders of Bangladesh to a meeting. Most of the important leaders of Bangladesh held firm to the position that there could be no meeting unless the Pakistani army was withdrawn from Bangladeshi soil, and boycotted the meeting. But Sheikh Mujibur Rahman participated in the meeting called by Yahya Khan. As a result, he was maligned as an agent of Yahya Khan! However, history proves that it was Sheikh Mujibur Rahman who went on to lead the National Liberation War of Bangladesh and emerged as the undisputed leader of the people.