A few metres into Nandigram, there is a two-storey building in a place called Reyapara. It grabs the attention of a visitor because of the fleet of cars parked outside. The structure is surrounded by flags of West Bengal’s ruling Trinamool Congress fluttering in the March breeze.
A few people gathered nearby say the building has been rented by chief minister Mamata Banerjee, who has sent political temperatures soaring by announcing that she will contest the high-profile Nandigram seat, which, in a large way, is responsible for her ascent to power.
A little further down, there is a Sahid Minar, a monument dedicated to “martyrs” of a violent agitation against land acquisition by then Left government in 2007. After coming to power, Banerjee’s government, which ended the 34-year Left rule in Bengal in 2011, accorded the status of “martyrs” to the victims of the movement.
In 2007, Banerjee arrived as a crusader in this lush green village in East Midnapore district. This time around, she is a contestant, with a lot at stake for her politically.
Villagers here primarily grow rice. Fourteen years ago, all hell broke loose after the Left government planned to acquire land in certain areas for a chemical hub under a Special Economic Zone. Protests spiralled and gained momentum with each passing day. A resistance force was formed and there were allegations that outlawed Maoists had infiltrated this group.
The Communist Party of India (Marxist), on the other hand, said its workers were terrorised as part of a “cleansing operation”, and one of them was brutally murdered. Then on March 14, police entered the village, allegedly along with workers of the ruling party. According to official figures, 14 villagers were killed in the violence that followed.
Duah Khan, 72, recounts the day when his nine-year-old son had gone to one of the protest spots with his friends. He never came back. He got distracted and was watching a puja ceremony in a small temple close by when the firing began.
Khan ran to save his son, but it was too late. “…I am proud that he faced bullets to save our land. For me he is a sahid,” Khan says, his voice trembling.
Mintoo Singh, his neighbour, faced a bullet but survived. “None of us have a problem with factories coming up. But they were trying to set it up in fertile land. How is that correct?” he asks.
Banerjee was at the forefront of that struggle against land acquisition as well as in Hooghly’s Singur, where villagers were protesting against a new small car factory. On the back of these agitations, she rode to power in 2011. It was around the same time that she came up with her famous “maa, mati, manush (mother, soil, people)” slogan.
The Trinamool grabbed the Nandigram seat from the Left in 2011, and then retained it in 2016, when her protégé, Suvendu Adhikari, became the legislator from the constituency.
Adhikari, who has had a key role to play during the Nandigram agitation, is now on the opposite side of the fence. Disgruntled, he resigned from the party last year and joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has launched an aggressive campaign to oust Banerjee from power.
With two heavyweights squaring off in a high-profile seat, a blockbuster election contest is in the making in Nadigram, where both leaders appear to have their own support base.
“Yes, Didi (as Banerjee is popularly called) gave us this land back. I was there that day too. But she has changed. She has come back to save her future. We don’t understand why she is against the ‘Ram’ slogan…Suvendu da has looked after us. We are grateful to him,” says Sougato Mallick, a villager, referring to the controversy over the chanting of the “Jai Shri Ram” slogan.
On the other hand, the Trinamool is digging out old photos of women, who lost their sons and husbands in 2007, hugging Banerjee. Significantly, 49% of Nandigram’s electorate are women. And this is what the Trinamool, among other factors, is trying to cash in on. It is also trying to project that Adhikari’s move to join the BJP was an act of betrayal.
“Suvendu became what he is now because of Mamata. She left him to look after us. He has betrayed her by joining the BJP. She fought for us when police fired (at villagers). I was there. I got hit by a bullet…We won’t leave her side,” says Ratik Saha, another villager.
In a way, the Nandigram fight will be political full circle for Banerjee, no matter what the outcome is.
Banerjee’s decision to contest the seat shows that she wants to be at her aggressive best. A win in Nandigram, where it all began, means re-establishing her clout and forming the government for another five years despite the stiffest electoral challenge she is likely to face since 2011. It will also have a huge symbolic value. On the other hand, a loss means the end of her reign after a decade. In that case, history will remember Nandigram as the place that made her and then led to her unmaking.