Speaking at a rally of the Democratic Youth Federation of India on 28 March in Kolkata, the Chief Minister accepted without qualification sole responsibility for the events at Nandigram on 14 March. To understand this expression of guilt a little better, we must know what exactly happened at Nandigram.
Nandigram was originally in the fold of the CPI(M). But the local people defected en masse when the designs of the government on their land were disclosed. The tables were turned on them by this defection. It began to be said that the governmental machinery had completely broken down at Nandigram and to restore a semblance of order there, suitable measures would have to be taken. This was a canard floated to justify the events that were to follow. That it was a canard will be proved by the fact that the local BDO's office, the Health centre, and schools etc. were functioning normally.
The first incitement was given by Mr. Benoy Konar, a veteran activist of the CPI-M, on the 6th. January when he said that Nandigram would be surrounded from all sides when 'we shall teach the people a lesson'. Thereafter, for nearly two and a half months, the cadres set to work with serious purpose and intent. Control was established over the highway stretching from Tamluk to Nandigram. The police abdicated. Four or five check posts were set up on this stretch by the cadres and all traffic carefully scrutinised. People without the right credentials according to the cadres were prevented from proceeding to their destinations in gross violation of the Indian Highways Act and the fundamental right of freedom of movement guaranteed to every citizen by the Constitution. The house of a rich local man, a CPI-M activist, was used as headquarters.
These preparations reached their climax on 12 March and on the following day, 13 March, the Governor received information at Chennai of a massive police operation to be unleashed on the hapless villagers of Nandigram, from where most of the men folk had fled out of fear. Fearing a catastrophe, the Governor conveyed a warning to the Home Secretary through his Principal Secretary about what might happen. Therefore, nothing happened on 13 March. But on 14 March, when the Governor was bound for Kolkata by air, a massive 'invasion' force comprising police and party cadres, some of whom were in police uniforms, went into action. The objective was the 'capture' of Nandigram. The first shots were fired at 9.40 a.m., aimed at a group of women and children, who ran helter-skelter. A full scale progrom was then mounted. Many men and women were killed by police and CPI-M bullets; many more were injured, and some women were raped, while others were molested, and some houses were wantonly looted, while others were burnt down. Thus we have before us a wide canvas of offences, punishable under sections 302, 326, 376, 354, 395, 436 of the Indian Penal Code.
The great preparations of the CPI-M cadres for a period of two and a half months were not certainly made in secret. The party hierarchy, beginning from the Chief Minster, were privy to them and of the progrom to be mounted. The preparations for teaching the people of Nandigram a lesson had the blessings of all the right people.
Seen in the above context, what are the implications of the Chief Minister's statement owning responsibility for the happenings at Nandigram? Is the statement to be taken at its face value or is it to be dismissed as a histrionic display meant to fool the people at large, a rhetorical statement meaning nothing at all?
In the sordid drama that was enacted on 14 March, the dramatis personae are easily identifiable. They will all be members of the CPI-M who conspired and/or took part in the commission of the crimes that have been listed and all members of the police force with similar culpability. And in the crime of conspiracy, how will the Chief Minster escape? He knew of the prelude to the final act of the drama and of the drama itself as it unfolded. Various echelons of his government would have also known of it. With all this knowledge at their disposal, how did the Chief Minister and his government fail to prevent the catastrophe, specially when the Governor himself gave a grim warning of it on 13 March? They will, therefore, have to share the blame for whatever happened and they will all be guilty of the offences enumerated read with section 120B of the Indian Penal Code.
The Chief Minister has assumed full responsibility for the events. The time has now come for him to show what he means by this.
If the Chief Minister means business and wishes to bring the criminals to book, irrespective of who they may be, then he should move the Central Government for entrusting to the CBI the investigation of the offences, for the State police, being a major partner in their commission, will be incapable of conducting a fair and impartial investigation, an investigation which will have the faith of the public at large. Writing in these columns on 20 March, I said that the murderers of innocent men and women of Nandigram should all be hanged after a fair trial. The CBI will be able to find the murderers as well as the rapists, dacoits, arsonists et. al. and all those found to have conspired in the perpetration of these offences, by their acts of commission or omission, no matter how high they might be in the hierarchy of the CPI-M or of the police force or of government.
No monetary price can be set upon the value of human life or on what the loss of a life means for a bereaved family. Yet, now that the Chief Minister has assumed responsibility for the Nandigram events, the duty befalls him to pay ex gratia a monetary compensation for every life lost. Now what was the death toll? According to the government, it was 14. But there are reports of scores of men killed and their bodies removed by the CPI-M cadres, with police help, and disposed of by various means. That more than 14 people were killed is absolutely certain. But how many? To find the exact number, a census should be conducted by an impartial agency (not under the State Government's control for obvious reasons) and compensation paid accordingly. Compensation should also be paid to the injured persons.
A news channel showed on 29 March the Additional Director General, Enforcement of the State police berating injured people at Tamluk hospital. It is pictures such as this that undermine people's faith in governmental machinery. This explains the reception that the Commissioner, Burdwan Division got at Nandigram when he went there to conduct his enquiry into the events there. With little or no popular cooperation forthcoming, the enquiry is bound to be perfunctory and doomed to failure.
In party politics in West Bengal there is, and there has always been, a great need for a proper statesman to emerge to take a broad view of things and guide the affairs of state instead of pursuing narrow party maneuvers. Mr. Bhuddadeb Bhattacharyya has now reached a stage at which he can prove whether he is such a statesman or simply another activist with petty motives. If he is to prove himself to be a statesman, he should press for a CBI investigation into the events at Nandigram. And thereafter, as behooves every true statesman, he should resign. If he is made of lesser stuff, he will be content to rest with his state police machinery and bureaucratic apparatus, notwithstanding that the public will have no faith in either of them.
The author is a retired IAS of West Bengal cadre and served as advisor to the Governor of Jammu and Kashmir.