Earlier this month, sitting in her home in Salt Lake, a satellite town adjoining Kolkata, Swapna Choudhury recalled how the month of January – 30 years apart – had brought sadness to her life.
“One dreadful January night in 1987, I lost my doctor-husband in a road accident in Durgapur,” she said. “My daughter was just about eight years then. And in another January night, this year, the police picked up Sharmistha.”
Sharmistha Choudhury, a political activist with the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Red Star, has been in jail for over 80 days now. Her party is spearheading a farmers’ agitation in Bhangar in South 24 Parganas district in which local residents are pushing for a Power Grid Corporation of India sub-station project to be shifted out of the area. The West Bengal Criminal Investigation Department is prosecuting Choudhury under the provisions of the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, which is usually applied in terrorism-related cases.
In the past month, the otherwise-reticent Swapna Choudhury has participated in at least three public meetings where she has called for the release of her daughter, other Red Star members and Bhangar protestors.
Opposition to project
The Bhangar movement is possibly the first major development-project related challenge Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress government has faced in six years.
The protesting villagers allege damage to agricultural land and the surrounding environment because of the under-construction power grid project. Some villagers have also claimed that they were forced to part with their land without adequate compensation. In January, the agitation exploded into a confrontation with the police, which resorted to firing in which two young men were killed. Work on the sub-station project – which is over 90% complete – has come to a halt since then.
Sharmistha Choudhury used to work with farmers and villagers in Bhangar to mobilise them against the project. A student of Presidency College in Kolkata, Choudhury was a journalist with the Telegraph newspaper in the state capital before she left home in 2003 to work for the Red Star party.
Battling her fears, Swapna Choudhury travelled to Bhangar, roughly 35 km from Kolkata, last week, where she addressed villagers on a sit-in demonstration. There, she unleashed a stinging attack on the Banerjee government, asking if the act of protesting – which Banerjee has indulged in several times in the past – was a crime.
“I want my daughter back,” she told the assembly. “I demand the unconditional release of all villagers of Bhangar who are suffering like my daughter…I hate this government. What crime did my daughter commit? What crime did the villagers commit?”
At the demonstration, Choudhury narrated how a Criminal Investigation Department team appeared at her apartment and ransacked it soon after her daughter’s arrest in January.
“They had my daughter with them,” said Choudhury. “Her face was stony and expressionless. I had performed a puja the same day, praying for her. I offered a sweet and water to my daughter. The policemen stopped me. My daughter murmured – ‘They fear you might poison me’. The search yielded nothing except humiliation and insult for me, and they once again whisked away my daughter. I have become almost an outcast in my neighbourhood.”
Villagers determined not to give in
At the sit-in in Bhangar, Mahadeb Mondal, Aziz Mullick, Mirza Hasan and other local residents said that they were determined not to let the project proceed. “Our agitation has entered a critical phase,” they said. “We will not allow the power sub-station to be made operational.”
Elaborating their concerns, the residents said that the power project was coming up in a densely-populated area, and they were concerned that the high tension lines criss-crossing the area would jeopardise farmland activity. “The giant transmission towers are a serious impediment to our smooth agricultural activity,” said Mondal, a farmer.
The electro-magnetic field that the high-tension lines will generate is also a concern, and villagers say that a group of scientists who had visited the area told them that their fears were not unfounded. The protestors also complain that no environmental impact assessment had been conducted prior to construction of the project. This assessment is a mandatory exercise for large projects under the Environment Protection Act, 1986.
Several young children present at the demonstration chanted slogans as passionately as their parents: “Power grid dur hato, dur hato [Send the power grid far away from here].”
Despite several arrests, the agitation appeared to be consolidating.
Ever since the January 17 flare-up, the protesting villages have constituted vigilante groups to monitor the power sub-station in Bhangar to ensure that it is not made operational. The protestors have also reached out to different rights’ groups and political outfits to elicit their support. In the past two months, Bhangar villagers have been able to get the support of mainstream political parties like the Communist Party of India, the Congress and the Socialist Unity Centre of India (Communist) – all of whom have held meetings in Bhangar expressing solidarity with the movement.
“But we are determined to see that the agitation does not take any political shade or colour,” said Rafique Mullick, another protestor. “We welcome support from all but want to keep the control of the movement within ourselves.”
A massive signature campaign has also been carried out, and deputations sent to West Bengal governor Keshari Nath Tripathi informing him about the villagers’ opposition to the project.
According to Mirza Hasan, one of the agitation’s leaders, 19 people have been arrested so far for opposing the sub-station, and 17 of them continue to be in custody. More than half-a-dozen leaders are facing charges under the stringent Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and the Arms Act.
“Initially, we feared the police,” said Hasan. “But now the stir has reached such a stage of consolidation that the police are afraid to enter our villages. People of about 20 villages have joined the movement and will not budge from their goal of having the power grid project shifted. Our demand for a meeting with the chief minister is being denied.”
The agitation’s leaders have announced that in the next phase of their protest, they will hold a public hearing about the power grid project, which should have been held before commencement of work on the project.
This is the first in a two-part series on the Bhangar agitation.