On 13 March, the Governor of West Bengal, Shri Gopal Krishna Gandhi, was in Chennai, where he received credible information to the effect that the police had mobilized a massive force on the outskirts of Nandigram in preparation for storming the village and restore, it is said, a semblance of government. The police force was reinforced by cadres of the CPM, some of them wearing police uniforms. It was obvious to the Governor that the situation was fraught with dangerous consequences. Accordingly, through his Principal Secretary, Dilip Rath, he conveyed a warning to the Home Secretary that the police should observe restraint in its projected venture in Nandigram. Nothing, therefore, happened on the 13th. On the 14th.
However, when the Governor was airborne en route to Kolkata and incommunicado, the police went into action, and by the time the Governor reached Kolkata, the action was all but complete. Restraint, as advocated by the Governor, was not observed.
Estimates vary. But at least 14 people were dead, killed both by police and other bullets, with evidence of gory blood trails showing that bodies had been dragged for over a kilometer; and several scores injured, to be removed to Nandigram and Tamluk hospitals and to SSKM hospital in Kolkata. Perhaps the death toll was much higher. Women bore stab as well as bullet wounds. Some women alleged rape. The carnage that occurred is reminiscent in the efficiency with which it was conducted of a Nazi progrom.
Stunned by the 'cold horror' of the events of the 14th, the Governor issued a statement lamenting the wanton bloodletting and asserting that the events need not have happened. And he visited the Tamluk Hospital to offer the injured men and women such succor as he could. The Chief Minister has not thought it fit to visit any of the injured or bereaved families; or to issue any condemnation of the bloody deeds.
The statement of the Governor has been criticized in an orchestrated manner in some circles and journals.
Has it dawned upon his critics that he is bound in his gubernatorial duties by an oath to defend, preserve and protect the Constitution and the laws of India?
The Constitution in its Preamble mentions Human Rights as an article of faith and the Directive Principles enjoin upon government the duty to protect the human rights of citizens. The Governor was thus bound by his oath of office to defend the human rights of individuals. He is also the head of the local Red Cross by which he is sworn also to lend succor to people affected by civic strife. And in Tamluk he was doing no more than to lend succor to injured persons, whose human rights lay tattered.
Where did he stray from the strait and narrow path of rectitude?
Where did he fail in his gubernatorial duties?
There has been condemnation of the proceedings at Nandigram from the CPM's allies in the Left Front, certain Ministers making bold, public utterances. And within the party itself, the ageing patriarch, Jyoti Basu, did not mince words in castigating the government for its handling of the situation. But from the CPM itself, there has been no public word of condemnation of the terror and carnage unleashed by the police and its own cadres. This acquiescence in silence tells its own tale of complicity.
There has also been condemnation from intellectuals, artists, writers and playwrights, screen and stage actors, film directors et al of the bloody events. Certain personalities returned their awards, received by them for their literary or artistic attainments, to register their protest. The protests were aired in public demonstrations of anguish on the streets of Kolkata, with large segments of the populace joining them.
A state-wide bandh was called by various political parties on 16 March, and I would presume most Kolkattans, view bandhs with considerable distaste. Yet there was a spontaneous upsurge of public angst regarding Nandigram which made the bandh a complete success. And I for one endorsed public opinion.
Stung by this upsurge of public sentiment of all hues and complexions, at last, on 17 March, the Chairman of the Left Front issued a categorical statement to the effect that no land at Nandigram would be compulsorily acquired for any industrial purpose and there would be a phased withdrawal of the police from the scene of its recent rampage.
But what about the withdrawal of others in police uniforms? One is reminded about the adage of lambs in wolves' clothing. The CPM, however, continues to maintain a stoic silence.
The Chairman's statement, showing a marked regression from the high horse that the Chief Minister is accustomed to ride, came three days late. If it had been made earlier, innocent lives would not have been lost, but some cadres would regrettably have been denied the momentary pleasure of rape committed on womenfolk.
The customary balm of paying a suitable amount to injured persons and bereaved families has not yet been applied by the Chief Minister, though there can be no monetary compensation which will be adequate for lives that have been lost and, admittedly, lost unnecessarily.
And what about those guilty for the rampage? They must be hanged (after a fair trial). The police at all levels will possibly argue that they are protected by the doctrine of respondeat superior. And the bureaucracy? The Governor's warning of 13 April was not heeded, possibly under political tutelage. When the situation as it happened at Nandigram was clear to the Governor, it should have been doubly so to the minions of his government. But we have become accustomed, or inured, to a system of supineness in which the distinction between the diktat of His Master's Voice and the clear requirement of law is lost. The preservation of self is the all important religion. As a former bureaucrat, I know of the pressures of the system and how to withstand them. Again as a former bureaucrat, the Governor, Shri Gopal Krishna Gandhi, would know this as well.
Our argument then brings us inexorably to the conclusion that the doctrine of respondeat superior may nail one or two political heads. Whose, is not far to seek.
A point to note in passing is that the CPM prides itself on its secular credentials. But what are they truly like? In Nanur, in Birbhum district, 11 share croppers were killed in police firing. They all happened to be Muslims. In Garbeta-Keshpur in Midnapore district, 50% of those similarly killed were Muslims. And now in Nandigram, at least 25% of the dead and injured are Muslims. Perhaps, this is an accident of history.
The author is a retired IAS of West Bengal cadre and served as advisor to the Governor of Jammu and Kashmir. The Governor in the present case is also a retired IAS and happens to be a grandson of Mahatma Gandhi.