The participants of an agitation against a power project in Bhangar, in West Bengal’s South 24 Parganas district, have alleged that the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress government was using repressive measures and filing false cases against peaceful protestors, often using draconian laws, in an attempt to crush the movement.

Sujato Bhadra, a leader of the Association for Protection of Democratic Rights, accused the government of making several “political arrests” in connection with the Bhangar agitation, and of “slapping UAPA charges indiscriminately” against those associated with it.

One such instance is that of Sharmishta Choudhury, an activist with the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Red Star that is spearheading the agitation against the Bhangar project. In January, the police arrested her and charged her under the stringent Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, which is usually used in terrorism-related cases.

Choudhury’s husband Alik Chakrabortty, a senior leader of the Red Star party, is in hiding as the police have lodged several First Information Reports against him, and there are non-bailable warrants out in his name. Chakrabortty has said that the Trinamool Congress government was trying to brand Red Star as a party of outsiders, and has equated them with banned Maoists in an attempt to crack down on them. He reiterated that Red Star had nothing to do with Maoist ideology as it believed in “parliamentary democracy and peaceful democratic movements”.

‘Crackdown on democratic protest’

Bhadra pointed to the irony in the fact that he headed a committee on the release of political prisoners that the Mamata Banerjee government had set up soon after the Trinamool Congress swept the Assembly polls in 2011.

Now, said the rights’ activist, the West Bengal government has filed false FIRs against him to restrict his movement. There are a number of arrest warrants out in Bhadra’s name in Bhangar, which prevents him from visiting the area. However, that has not deterred him from addressing rallies in Kolkata where he has voiced his opposition to the project.

Bhadra recalled Mamata Banerjee’s historic fight in 1995 against the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act, which was later repealed, and said that it was difficult to reconcile Banerjee’s image then with her government’s crackdown on the agitators in Bhangar now. He accused Banerjee of “giving the police a free hand to slap UAPA [Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act] charges against democratic movement leaders”.

When the previous Left Front government was in power in the state, Mamata Banerjee, then in the Opposition, also led the fight against a Tata Nano plant in Singur, in Hooghly district. The Tatas were forced to pull out of the venture in 2008.

Mamata Banerjee at a sit-in demonstration against the Tata Nano plant at Singur on September 16, 2008. (Photo credit: AFP).

Referring to the committee on the release of political prisoners that he headed in 2011, Bhadra said: “We meticulously went through records of each political prisoner and recommended to the government the release of all political prisoners in West Bengal, unconditionally. We had also suggested a modus operandi by which pending criminal cases would be waived legally with the consent of the judiciary. But the government only partially accepted our recommendations.”

He added: “As of now, over 120 political prisoners are still languishing in jails and with the arrest of leaders in places like Bhangar and Bhabadighi in Arambagh; more and more political prisoners are filling up jails.”

Bhabadighi is another place in West Bengal that has seen agitations by local residents against land acquisition for development projects.

Kabir Suman, a former Trinamool Congress MP, has also aired his disappointment at the Banerjee government’s clampdown on protests.

“I had been a supporter of this government, I like Mamata didi,” said Suman at an event held in Kolkata at the end of February. “But I cannot support everything. When I think of the killing of Koteshwar Rao [Maoist leader Kishanji] in an encounter, I feel like crying. When I think of Chhatadhar Mahato [the leader of a peoples’ movement in Junglemahal] languishing in jail, I feel sad. Again, why should Sharmistha Choudhury be in jail under UAPA?”

Power grid officials clueless

Back in Bhangar, going by the mood of people in the villages surrounding the power grid sub-station, the agitation seems to be gaining further momentum.

Work on the power sub-station has stopped since January. Over 90% work of the sub-station was completed, said a senior official of the power company, who did not want to be identified. “We are incurring heavy losses every day,” he said.

The official added: “In Bhangar now there is a parallel administration run by the protestors. There is no visible writ of the state administration. Our power station is lying unmanned. Our computers and printers have been stolen. Some time ago, we had sent six private security guards to protect the property but the villagers turned up and asked the men to leave or face dire consequences. The guards left immediately. Our corporate headquarters is extremely unhappy.”

The Power Grid Corporation of India officials said that they did not have any access to the chief minister, but they were in touch with state Power Minister Sovandeb Chattopadhyay who told them that Banerjee was now handling all matters related to the project. “We are completely in the dark about the state government’s plans for the project,” the officials said.

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

Rezzak Mollah, the Trinamool Congress MLA from Bhangar, also pleaded ignorance about the status of the project. He said that the matter could have been resolved if the government had talked to the residents of villages directly, and addressed their fears.

He said that the project began in 2013, and that there was no problem till at the last stage. “Land sharks in the area had pumped in finances to raise the bogey of ecology and environment to protect their real estate interests,” claimed Mollah.

Chattopadhyay believes that outsiders have vitiated the villagers’ minds, and wants to wait for sense to prevail. He said that power is a basic necessity and the project would benefit a large segment of people, including those protesting against it. Asked why the government was not talking to the protestors, Chattopadhyay said that he was trying to arrange talks between agitators and the chief minister, which might pave the way for a resolution.

This is the second of a two-part series on the Bhangar agitation. The first part can be read here.