On February 3, the Criminal Investigation Department of the West Bengal Police moved court to add charges under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, which is usually used in terrorism-related cases, and Maintenance of Public Order Act against Sharmistha Choudhury and Pradip Singh Thakur of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Red Star. The rebel outfit is spearheading an agitation against a power project in Bhangar in the state’s South 24 Parganas district. The police had arrested the two leaders in January in connection with violent protests in Bhangar that claimed two lives that same month. A first information report was filed against them under the Indian Penal Code and Arms Act, according to Choudhury’s lawyer Harishankar Chakrabortty.

“The new charges were added to the original FIR for all the activities they had done in Bhangar, from inciting violence to burning of police vehicles and others,” said Dr Rajesh Kumar, additional director general of the Criminal Investigation Department. Producing the two before the sub-divisional judicial magistrate in Baruipur, the police said, “Sharmistha Choudhury and Pradip Singh Thakur carried out illegal acts of damaging and destroying government property and causing injuries to on-duty police personnel after hatching up conspiracy. They threatened the unity, integrity and sovereignty of the state.”

Following the arrests and the move to add new charges, the department also raided Choudhury’s house in the Salt Lake area and Red Star offices, including the North 24 Parganas office she reportedly worked out of. They confiscated papers, books and computers.

The additional charges would help investigators keep the leaders in custody for a long period without having to produce them in court. However, such a move may prove counter-productive and give the outfit fresh impetus to mobilise people and support for the anti-land acquisition stir.

Protestors at Bhangar targeted police vans during violent clashes in January.
Protestors at Bhangar targeted police vans during violent clashes in January.

The trouble in Bhangar

The agitation against an under-construction power grid sub-station in Bhangar, 35 km from Kolkata, turned violent on January 17 when thousands of villagers blocked roads, dug up village paths and attacked policemen while demanding that the project be scrapped – allegedly because it would harm the environment and their livelihoods, while some also claimed they had been forced to part with their lands and had not been adequately compensated. Two villagers were killed in firing and mobs set fire to a large number of police vehicles. An assurance from Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee that the project would not move forward if the residents did not want it brought about a temporary truce. But the heat and dust over Bhangar seems far from settled.

In a telephone interview to Scroll.in on Sunday, KN Ramachandran, the all-India general secretary of Red Star, accused the state government of trying to provoke his party and threatened to take the movement into the mainstream. “We would not fall into the trap but we are moving for a much bigger movement than either Singur or Nandigram in Bengal,” he said, referring to mass movements in the state against a Tata Nano manufacturing unit and a special economic zone in 2006 and 2007, respectively. “People whose lands are threatened under this regime are uniting under our leadership and support us.”

Ramachandran – who reportedly went missing from Kolkata railway station on January 22 before resurfacing in Delhi two days later, and accusing the Bengal police of being behind his disappearance – said the repressive measures of the police had inspired his party to mobilise the people, and that it has decided to revisit all land acquisition cases under the present government and carry out a study of the areas through which the power grid’s transmission lines pass. With the support of progressive parties who have shown an interest in joining the movement, the Red Star will fight for affected farmers, he added.

For now, the party is considering holding a public hearing in Bhangar and bringing in environmentalists and scientists to assess the electro-magnetic impact the high tension lines would have on livelihoods and ecology there, its leaders said.

The under-construction power grid sub-station at Bhangar.
The under-construction power grid sub-station at Bhangar.

A veteran and a rising star

At the forefront of the Red Star party’s mobilisation in Bhangar are three of its most prominent leaders.

Pradip Singh Thakur had been a veteran Naxal, having joined the Naxalbari movement right from its inception in 1967 and worked with its leader Charu Majumdar. When the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) split after Majumdar’s death in 1972, Thakur – who was said to be a student of Jadavpur University – joined the faction led by Satya Narain Singh. Later, he joined the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) New Democracy but developed ideological differences with its leaders. In 2012, he became a part of the Red Star. Currently its state secretary in West Bengal, he also led the All India Krantikari Krishak Sabha – an all India farmers’ union with a 100,000-strong membership.

Sharmistha Choudhury was arrested on January 25 in connection with the clashes in Bhangar.
Sharmistha Choudhury was arrested on January 25 in connection with the clashes in Bhangar.

Sharmistha Choudhury, on the other hand, is a relatively new star of the Red Star who has emerged with the Bhangar agitation. A student of Presidency College, she was a journalist with the Telegraph newspaper in Kolkata before taking the big leap and becoming a full-time member of the Red Star in 2003. She joined Red Star before Thakur. “Right from the beginning, she played partisan politics,” said Shankar Das, a senior leader of the party and a member of its central committee.

Choudhury, an only child, lost her father early on while her mother lives alone in Salt Lake. After joining the party, she reportedly moved far away from her family. She married Alik Chakrabortty – who is also a senior Red Star leader at the forefront of the Bhangar agitation, and has been named in the FIR along with his wife. Both were involved in mobilising villagers in Bhangar who were unhappy with the power project. Choudhury spent days and nights in the villages of Bhangar, interacting with the people and gauging their response to the power grid and to other cases of land grab. The land mafia is active in the area and the ruling Trinamool Congress is often accused of sheltering them.

“She is no small leader in the party,” said Ramachandran. “She is a committed comrade and the party would come to Sharmistha and Pradip Singh Thakur’s aid in all manners possible. We will be engaging senior lawyers to take the matter to the upper court and challenge the slapping of UAPA charges.”

The Red Star leader said the police could not keep her confined forever. “She is the general secretary of the All India Revolutionary Women’s Conference, a wing of the world-wide forum called World Women’s Conference,” he added. “[Its] Leaders across India and abroad have begun to express concern about her arrest and detention. A conference of the women’s body is scheduled in Bengaluru in March. But should she be in custody, the conference would have to be postponed.”

Choudhury contested last year’s Assembly elections and the Lok Sabha polls of 2014 as her party’s candidate from Barrackpore in the northern outskirts of Kolkata, but forfeited her security deposit both times.

Growing in prominence

Protests and agitations have been an integral part of life in West Bengal. But there is something different about the one in Bhangar, in large part because a relatively unknown outfit is at its forefront. But how and why?

“When we went there, there was a big political vacuum,” explained Shankar Das. “To be true, our involvement was not very long in Bhangar. But we found that the BJP was not present there because of high density of Muslim population, the CPM had lost credibility and people did not believe them, and the Trinamool Congress leaders enjoying power and clout did not give any weight to local dissent. We were instantly accepted by the villagers. We are deeply entrenched now. The people are with us, whatever may be the threats from the rulers.”

Leaders said the Red Star is serious about being a part of parliamentary democracy and should not be equated with Maoists. In fact, when the party was born from a split in the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) in 1997, its principal argument was to explore parliamentary democracy before opting for armed struggle. Contesting elections is a part of this process and the party is not too concerned with winning them, they added.

“We have joined the mainstream and how can we be equated with Maoists?” asked Ramachandran. “How can our leaders be charged as ‘outsiders’ and booked for working against the integrity and sovereignty of the state?”

He said the state administration should not take the Red Star lightly. “Our party had been a major player in agitations against POSCO and in Chilikha in Orissa, and we will lead the movement in Bengal too,” he said, referring to the agitation against a steel plant in Odisha that was to be built by the South Korean steel major POSCO.

The violence in Bhangar on January 17 left two villagers dead.
The violence in Bhangar on January 17 left two villagers dead.

All images by Subrata Nagchoudhury