KOLKATA: For the last five years, a non-descript stretch of land has been home to hundreds of families. Nonadanga, off the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass in Kolkata, has become an unofficial haven for migrants in West Bengal seeking relief.
Some lost their land to modernisation and others to nature’s fury like the Aila. Families flocked to the area from Sundarbans, Nandigram, Bongaon and Khejuri. As the erstwhile Left Front government shifted the first settlers to government-provided flats, hundreds more rushed in to take their place. The process continued till a well-oiled system ensured that encroachers increased in numbers. Six years after Mamata Banerjee protested forcible land-acquisition and eviction in Nandigram, a similar situation is rocking her government in urban Kolkata. The TMC-led government’s initiative to evict more than 500 migrants in the city has stirred up a storm. Boundary walls are being built while scores of policemen keep a close watch.
To make matters worse, the government has refused rehabilitation to 200 families who had settled in Nonadanga only recently. With the migrants refusing to vacate their homes, the situation is tense. On April 8, the police lathicharged a rally injuring several, including a pregnant woman and children; a nine year-old spent nine hours in jail as part of the 69 people rounded up by the police. “I condemn this police action on slum dwellers, especially on women. I have heard that even pregnant women were not spared by male policemen. I criticise such inhuman activities,” said Mahasweta Devi, Magsaysay award winner and human rights activist. Amitava Bhattacharya, general secretary of Mazdoor Kranti Parishad (MKP), one of the organisations which are backing the squatters’ movement and deemed to be fronting Maoist organisations, said, “Nobody who took part in the agitation was arrested on April 4… Police are now just trying to justify the arrest of seven leaders.” Acclaimed molecular biologist Dr Partho Sarothi Ray was one of the seven activists who were arrested and later denied bail for charges pertaining to a previous protest on April 4, even though there was ample proof of his presence in an educational institution 70 km away.
The state government came in for criticism once again over its undemocratic arrest of the scientist. In a letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on April 14, well-known American scientist Noam Chomsky along with other academics appealed for his “immediate” bail. The letter written by renowned thinkers such as National Advisory Council member Aruna Roy slammed the increasingly dictatorial stance of the TMC-led government. The professor from Indian Institute of Science Education and Research Kolkata was granted bail after spending 10 days in jail.
“Mamata Banerjee has come to power on the back of anti-land acquisition movement. Therefore, what is happening has hurt the evicted people of Nonadanga. We feel that the government is not keeping its promises,” said Ray after he was granted bail. “I came to my homeland after refusing two faculty positions in the US because I wanted to work for my state and have been doing so for the last four years. I can only say that we are witnessing dark days. If I can be implicated in a false case then it’s a telling reminder of the condition of the rule of law in the state. All intellectuals who are ready to speak their minds are being targeted. The signs are ominous about the state of democracy in West Bengal,” he said. Ray has pledged to continue his participation in the anti-eviction movement.
As many as 80 members of CPI(ML) were also arrested for taking out a rally to protest the eviction. “It is unacceptable how the government is refusing to provide rehabilitation to some of the families. The Supreme Court has directed that there can be no eviction without rehabilitation. And we must look at Mamata Banerjee’s litany of her promises and how she has done a complete 180 degrees turn,” said Surajit Mukhopadhyay, sociologist.
Rights groups and intellectuals have slammed the government for the police atrocities. “She wants to turn Kolkata into London. So all the hawkers, slums, small shops have to be removed. Therefore, she is suspecting Maoist link. This is very shameful. We have to hit the streets in well-planned manner,” said Wasim Kapoor, well-known painter. A rally held by Association for Protection of Democratic Rights (APDR) was disrupted by alleged TMC goons as the activists were first roughed up by TMC workers and then arrested by the police. “We had a prior permission to hold the programme, but still we were attacked by the police and beaten up mercilessly both by TMC goons and the police. We condemn this. Is this democracy?” said Debaprasad Roy Choudhury, General Secretary, APDR.
The government is alleging the role of Maoists behind the uprising and the stockpiling of arms and ammunition in Nonadanga. With scores of migrants going on hunger strike launched by Ucched Pratibad Committee along with MKP activists; and activists belonging to a rights group getting roughed up by alleged TMC supporters while the police looked the other way; the TMC-led government finds itself struggling in the seat of power, to control the situation which has already gone out of hand and is garnering attention from the rest of the world.