Monday, September 26, 2011

Reversing Land Reforms in West Bengal: A Report

By Bhagabati Mandal, Gairika Ghosh, Malini Bhattacharya, Mihir Bhattacharya and Rama Das .

This report is based on case-studies of incidents of eviction from agricultural land in 4 districts in the southern part of West Bengal, namely, North 24 Parganas, Burdwan, Birbhum and South 24 Parganas, undertaken by Punarnaba; a Forum.

This report is based on case-studies of incidents of eviction from agricultural land in 4 districts in the southern part of West Bengal, namely, North 24 Parganas, Burdwan, Birbhum and South 24 Parganas. The studies are mainly based on visits to thana areas in the districts where such eviction is reported to have taken place and on interviews and group-meetings with affected persons, more particularly with women. A broad questionnaire was previously formulated to ensure that comparison may be done among the different findings, but the discussions were more flexible and not confined to the questionnaire alone. In a number of instances, people showed us documents in corroboration of their claim, but the evidence was mostly oral. To understand the broader context of the incident, we spoke also to senior people in the village, to panchayat members and to Kisan Sabha leaders. We did not try to compare our evidence with ‘official versions’ because most often such versions do not exist and the incidents we are speaking of remain invisible because in many cases, police refuse to take complaints, or even when cases are lodged the basic question of conflict over land is completely blurred by putting a different construction on the incident. This will be evident from our reports on Kankutia, Birbhum, and Harapur, south 24 Parganas. Wherever the incidents have been reported in media at all we have tried to compare the different versions. This study was undertaken by Punarnaba; a Forum, which also organized our visits to the locations.

1. We visited Haroa Block in North 24 Parganas on 20.7.11. The location to which we went was called Chhowani, on the border between two blocks, Minakhan and Haroa. It was situated right next to the bheris or fisheries, extensive stretches of water with low narrow earth walls in between and occasional little shacks called alaghar on poles rising from the water. These are the places from which night guards employed by the fisheries keep watch against intruders. There is only one tarred road in rather bad condition, wending along the edge of the bheris towards Haroa where the nearest police station is located and it had taken the best part of an hour for us to come from Haroa to this spot. This spot is very close to the place where, on 9 July,2011, police and TMC allegedly opened fire on peasants trying to retrieve possession of the land for which they had been given pattas more than a decade ago by the Left Front Govt., an incident in which three peasants sustained bullet injuries.

Our respondents were Pintu Mollah, Dinabandhu Sardar, Dasarath Mondol, Sajal Das as well as women like Atashi Mondol, Bimala Sardar, Parul Munda, Karuna Sardar, Pano Sardar, Sita Sardar, Santi Sardar,Mani Munda, Durgamani Munda, Sitamani Munda and others who were from Gopalpur-1 and -2 and Munshirgheri-1 and -2 panchayat areas. Quite a few of the women came from the village of Banstola, very close to the place where the peasants were attacked and were eye-witnesses to the incident. All the women who met us, except one, were Adivasis.

What we were told is that land reforms did not take place in the moujas of Tentulia, Nebutola Abad and Munshirgheri under Gopalpur-1 and Gopalpur-2 until 1996. There were large areas of benami land occupied by extensive fisheries under the ownership of jotdars like Kashem Ali and Chhoton Munshi. The peasants were largely landless, a majority in some of the moujas including Munshirgheri mouja, being Adivasis. In 1996, under the leadership of Kisan Sabha, landless peasants from Gopalpur-1 and -2, Mohanpur, Champali etc. seized occupation of large parts of this benami land in the three above-mentioned moujas. The amount of land occupied was 1265 bighas in Tentulia, 2200 bighas in Nebutola Abad and about 1100 bighas in Munshir-gheri.

This benami land was vested in the Government through legal process and patta was then given in 2000 on 508 bighas to 1205 landless peasants in Tentulia. In Nebutola Abad and Munshirgheri, the process of giving pattas was stalled as the jotdars went to court and the case remained sub judice. However, there was a Supreme Court order whereby eviction of the occupants of the land, even where they had not obtained pattas but were cultivating the land, was prevented. For more than a decade now, these occupants have been themselves raising one crop on it and after the harvest, they have been leasing out these small plots of land to other local people who are then turning them into fisheries for the rest of the year. Earlier the peasants would migrate to other places in search of work, but now that they own some land, migration has been reduced. The jotdars had retreated for the time being; however, they were down but not out and even after 2000, there had been sporadic disturbances in the area. In a sense, what happened after the change of regime in the state was a continuation of the tensions that had prevailed here over the ownership of land, the peasants determined to hold on to the rights to the land they had acquired and the jotdars fighting tooth and nail to regain possession of what they had lost.

According to our respondents, troubles started once Assembly election results were out. On the pretext of looking for illegal arms, armed gangs recruited by TMC and with active support of the jotdars started infiltrating into the area helped by the local police force. On 3 July, they entered the village of Amta-Khantra in search of arms and when nothing was found they demanded that search should be made in Gazitola. The next day they came back with a huge police force as well as RAF; the attacking gangs were themselves armed with bombs, swords and firearms and they were hiding behind the police forces. The peasants being unprepared and unarmed could not resist them and although no hidden arms could be discovered, they set fire to the alaghars, damaged whatever property of the peasants they could find and took possession of the bheris. This time the police were not just silent spectators, but led the campaign in evicting the peasants.

The evicted peasants were desperate because the time for cultivation was about to start and unless they could immediately regain access to the land that was legally theirs, they would not be able to raise the crop on which their subsistence depended. Nor would the leaseholders who were running the fisheries be able to carry on their work, thus jeopardizing the livelihoods of all those who depended for a living on the fisheries. On 8 July, there was a meeting at the Chhowani retail fish market, which was attended by leaders of the political opposition in the state like Shri Surjakanto Mishra. Here it was decided that the peasants should try to enter the land and start cultivation as they did every year.

Accordingly on the morning of 9 July, a group of pattadars about 1200-strong, Adivasis most of them, went forth around 9.30 am to take possession of their lands. The intruders who were on guard, were outnumbered by the peasants and backed away in the face of their advance and retreated to Dewalgheri. But a couple of hours later, they returned in full force bringing this time 6 vehicles filled with armed police to back them up. As soon as police arrived, without any warning they opened fire according to our respondents; allegedly the TMC gangs accompanying them also started shooting. In the face of this twin attack, the peasants broke rank and started to run away wherever they could. In the melee 3 peasants got bullet injuries; as far as they could tell us the injuries were caused by TMC bullets. The names of the injured persons are: Bonko Sardar, Kanai Sardar and Saharab Sardar. Kanai Sardar’s injury was serious, but they did not dare to take him to the Govt. hospital and managed to admit him to a private clinic a couple of days later.

According to their statement, the peasants ran away only because they were being attacked by the police and they knew that they were in no way prepared to resist the police and RAF. Many women who had come out of their houses to watch the progress of their men and were standing around at that time also ran helter-skelter. Some of them like Atashi Mondol, Karuna Sardar, Pano Sardar, Anima Sardar were eye-witnesses to police firing. They also said that that the police closed in from both sides and mercilessly beat up one Bikash Santra, who was a lessee running fisheries in the area and severely injured him. Another lessee, Sambhu Sardar, was accused of having illegal arms, and although nothing was discovered at his residence, the TMC gangs together with the police allegedly ransacked his house, destroyed his papers and set fire to the alaghar on his rayati property. They also threatened and gave chase to young boys like Dasarath Mondol who were standing in the vicinity watching the attack made by the police and TMC.

The situation at the moment is that in Tentulia mouja the entire vested area consisting of 1265 bighas is now under occupation by the intruders, and about 3000 peasants including those who did not have pattas but who had the right to till the soil according to the SC order, have been deprived of their livelihood and the land remains uncultivated. Also since there is now no one to look after the bheris, the likelihood of water level rising, breaking the earth walls and flooding the fields making them unfit for cultivation is now very real. In Nebutola Abad mouja, where in a large part of the land, cases are still going on in the High Court, about 3700 people have been ousted from the land they had been cultivating. In Munshirgheri mouja, where also the process of vesting was stalled in parts of the land due to court cases, the intruders have taken possession of about 120 bighas out of about 1100 bighas.

In these areas, even those with legal pattas are unable to access their land so that they may start cultivation; cultivators without patta, but none the less protected from eviction by the SC order, are also in a similar situation. Further, in Tentulia mouja, 150 families are unable to stay at home and have taken shelter here and there. In Munshirgheri mouja also displacements have taken place. A FIR was lodged with Haroa police station after the incident of 9 July; 4 persons were arrested and released the next day. The police came to Kanai Sardar’s house for enquiry, but according to the women, asked irrelevant questions like ‘Why were you standing outside at the time?’ ‘Do you know the persons who set the alaghars on fire?’ when everything happened in front of them and they could see what was happening. The women complained that in many cases the men in their families were staying away from home at night for fear of raids, while they themselves lived in daily fear because gangs on motorbikes were frequenting the only road regularly and shouting abuses and threats. Their children’s education was being disrupted and they were unable to send them to the Madhyamik Shiksha Kendra which was some distance away.

Many of the married women in this area are beneficiaries of joint patta although they have only a vague idea of the significance of this. However, as matters stand now they are also deprived of ownership right to the land. Since most of the peasants only have small plots of land, they also have to work as agricultural labourers for part of the time to make ends meet. The women themselves also work as agricultural labourers along with their men; after harvest is over they work in the fisheries collecting prawns and crabs and selling them. Even now wherever possible (as in Munshirgheri) they have started the work of planting rice seedlings since soon it will be too late for that. But now that they have been deprived of their land and whatever other livelihood they had, they are saying that they would have to turn into migrant workers in search of work once again. The pity of it is that in spite of having legal rights and in many cases the necessary legal documents, the peasants are unable to gain access to their land. The police in stead of helping them are allegedly either turning a blind eye to this violation of rights or working directly in cahoots with the intruders. It is quite true that the geographical location of the area is such that the intruders would not have been able to make much headway without the support of the police.

The peasants have also stated that some members of the gang of intruders were known to them as being close to the jotdars in the area and acting as their henchmen. But mostly the intruders were unknown and had probably been brought over from other areas with promises that they would be able to grab the land, and particularly the fisheries, once when the present occupants have been ousted. They have firearms and other weapons with them. They knew that the intruders belonged to TMC because at the time of the attack, they were carrying their flags. The women vociferously said that whatever their affiliation, TMC or CPI(M), they should stop their violent activities and allow some peace and quiet in the area.

2. A team comprising Debjani Sengupta, Supriyo Basu and Samhita Majumdar visited the villages of Barorpara in Mahadebpur Mouja, Dakshinbati and Jankar in Samudragarh under Purbasthali thana in the district of Burdwan. About ten years back, in Mahadebpur, benami land owned by three jotdars, Abu Morol, Hajijur Rahman Mondol and Abdul Haq Mondol (about 300 acres) was occupied by 508 landless peasants who had been tilling the land since 1980s. This land was vested and distributed among them, although because of pending cases, pattas could not be given for 110-115 bighas. After the assembly elections, a mob about 400-500 strong, among whom there were many outsiders, came and evicted about 200 of the above-mentioned tillers from their land by force and marked it with TMC flags. It was forcibly redistributed among people in the village many of whom had more than 4-5 bighas of land. Also some landless labourers were promised pattas and engaged to till the occupied fields. Those who had obtained tillers’ rights during the Left Front regime, but had not yet received the documents due to legal complications were the most vulnerable group. Protima Prodhan, Kanchan Das, Monjira Biwi, Abdul Halim Mallik, Khairul Mollah and others told us that they have already been evicted. Others like Mosharraf Mollah are being threatened with eviction.

But this does not mean that those having the required documents are absolutely secure. One widow, Chhabi Das, and Mumtaj Begum, a deserted woman, showed us documents for their rayati land, which is now under occupation, and said that although they had been assured that they would be able to till their land if they had proper documents, the TMC flags are still flying over their land and outsiders have been engaged to cultivate their plots. They also told us that they feared for the lives of their sons should they try to retrieve it. Apart from intimidation, girls had been molested. Khadeja, a young girl of 15 and her mother, Arjina Biwi, were brutally tortured on the pretext that they had stolen a mobile phone. Her brother too was beaten up. The women said: now that they (TMC) are in power, they can do what they like. If the villagers want to complain, they have to plead with TMC leaders. Laxmi Hansda, Talkuri Hansda and one other Adivasi woman showed us their patta documents and said that they were unable to access the land that is rightfully theirs although it is being said that the land of those having pattas will not be taken away.

It is the time for harvesting jute, but TMC leaders are saying: harvest your crop and get off the land. Former MLA, Manoranjan Nath, advised the peasants to till the land on the same day after harvesting the jute. For the last ten years, in the face of stiff opposition from landowners, Kisan Sabha had been identifying vested land and giving homestead land to the homeless. With the change of regime, their rights too are jeopardized. Thirteen families, who had been holding on to such land since 1998, although their homes have been twice burnt down by landowners’ henchmen, are now being told that if they do not leave, they shall be thrown out by the police. Abdus Sukur of Kesabbati, who had been cultivating rayoti land (33 shatak) since 1978, has been evicted and his land has been given to two persons who own more than 1 acre of land. Kisan Sabha has started holding meetings in the area and trying to win back peasants who were actively involved in the eviction; some of them have been persuaded, but as one peasant said, these steps should have been taken long ago.

We were accompanied by Sahadul Khan, president, Block Kisan Sabha and by Anju Kar when we visited Dakshinbati. Here, in 1998, more than 4 acres of benami land was identified and distributed among 80 peasants. But due to opposition from TMC-dominated Panchayat, pattas could not be given although there was a court order saying that apart from 2 acres 66 shatak, on the rest of the land, patta could be given. On 26 June, 2011, the original owner re-occupied the entire land, including vested land, with the help of the police, on the basis of a court order dating back to 2001. They also brought some landless labourers with them. The argument of the police, who did not accept the complaint of the peasants, was: you cannot cultivate this land as you have no pattas. The intruders also cut down about 80 mango trees. Since the peasants were aware of the intimacy between the IC and the landowner and had found the police too ready to respond whenever the latter needed their help, they did not try to recover their land immediately. But the next day, through organized resistance, they recovered 50-60 shataks of land. The rest of the land was tilled by labourers hired by the landowner. Three days after our visit, it was reported in media that they had been able to retrieve the entire land which was vested.

Next we visited the house of Santosh Dhara, a registered bargadar of Jankar village and heard of the torture he had had to endure in the hands of TMC goons. His family has been specially targeted because his son, Goutam, is a CPI(M) activist. Santosh Dhara and his 3 other brothers cultivate 7 bighas of land on which his father had bargadari rights. It is not known whether the landowner was privy to the attack on him since he does not live in the village. However, on the day of the attack he and his brothers were working on the land when 50-60 TMC supporters set upon them with hatchets and other weapons. He and his wife, Anita, were hit on the head with hatchets and lay unconscious in their own blood. His brothers and one sister-in-law also sustained serious injuries. The attackers also tried to prevent the ambulance from entering the village. However, through the efforts of Aleya Begum, the erstwhile pradhan and present leader of opposition in the panchayat samiti, they could be taken to the hospital for treatment. They are still living in terror; even the families who had helped them on that day are under threat. One girl student named Ananya, studying in Class XI, told us how she and her family are being harassed because they made a complaint to the police. The police have not so far admitted any complaint, neither GD, nor FIR, although they visited the spot.

The salient points observed by us are: attacks are concentrated where peasants have not received patta owing to legal complications, although the pattadars and owners of rayoti land are not entirely immune to attack; while the tillers of the land are being ousted, it is being distributed to others, even though many of these people have land of their own; a reign of terror is being unleashed from which even women are not safe; attempts at eviction had been going on for a long time, now these attempts are being successful; police is actively facilitating eviction and not registering the complaints of the peasants. The peasants are saying that they could not have been ousted from the land if police were not helping their adversaries; the IC at the thana level is actively participating in the process of eviction; during LF regime, the advisory committee at the thana level consisted of people from all walks of life, but now its place has been taken by a ‘nagarik committee’ which represents the ruling party alone.

3.Our team visited village Kankutia in Raipur-Sripur panchayat area under Bolpur-Sriniketan Block in Birbhum on 27.07.11. This is a large village having about 500 families (2500-3000 residents) residing in it. Here in a series of incidents culminating on 19 July, 42 peasants (ST 27+ SC 10 + Muslims 5) were evicted from 14 bighas of agricultural land for which they are holding pattas. They have been cultivating this land for a long time on the basis of which pattas were given to them between early ‘80s and late ‘90s. The original owners of the land are living in Burdwan, so that it is not possible to say whether they are involved in the process of eviction. A total of another 10 peasants ( ST 2+SC 6+ Muslim 2) have also been evicted in the villages of Singi, Nahina, Shalan and Jashra from 11.5 bighas of land, bringing the total amount of land to 25.5 bighas, most of which is vested. Since land had been distributed much earlier, there are no joint pattas, but there are 6 or 7 women beneficiaries. Four of those evicted are bargadars. The land yields only one crop, but some vegetables are grown where irrigation is there. So apart from a large number of landless labourers travelling to other areas of Birbhum, the pattadars themselves also have to look for supplementary work since the land they have is scattered in small plots over the area. Many of them earn some income through construction work. We talked to some of the many women landless labourers in the village. They have homestead land, but no agricultural land and travel to different parts of the district in search of work. The daily wages vary and depend on negotiations with their employers. But they have not been greatly affected by the present disturbances and were either unwilling or unable to talk about incidents of eviction.

Everyone said that this had been a peaceful area. Troubles started before the assembly elections. Work at the left-dominated panchayat came to a standstill because the woman pradhan, Sonali Dhibar was being daily harassed by organized gangs of TMC workers who crowded her office in the name of giving deputation; she was even manhandled. After the election, a left panchayat member, Lete Soren, was falsely implicated on the charge of carrying a bag of bombs on his motor-bike. He is now absconding. Fatik Kisku’s homestead land was taken away and TMC flags planted there. We were told that at the moment, the panchayat is able to function, police cars are making their rounds as we also saw for ourselves; but in spite of that, an atmosphere of unease and terror prevailed over the village. So much so that apart from woman panchayat member Lakshmi Soren, few others would give us their names. In Kantabagan, which is an Adivasi neighbourhood, we found very few men at home. One woman would not even come in front of us because her husband had been arrested by the police, and she said, who knows whether she too would be arrested for talking to us, and then who would look after her children. In Bagdipara (where the SC community live), everyone retreated indoors when they saw our Ambassador car coming.

After we succeeded in assuring them that we were not connected with the police in any way, some women, both at Kantabagan and Bagdipara came and spoke to us, but they were still wary of telling us their names. The story they told us was this: Those from whom the land had been vested are living in Burdwan. But some local TMC leaders such as Abul Rahim, Dhiren Bala and others had been intruding into patta land with tractors and destroying vegetables grown by the peasants. In Bagdipara, one woman told us that the land for which her family has patta has been occupied by Abul Rahim who has no claim to it; when she protested she was told ‘This is not your land, you can till the land on that side’; but that plot is not only uncultivable, but it once used to be the common burial ground. To sort out these problems, the villagers made a deputation to the Block Land and Land Reform Officer and demanded that the land be measured. On the morning of 19 July, while the BLLRO’s men were starting this work, the above-mentioned TMC leaders came with a huge armed gang and started throwing bombs. At first, the villagers began to run away, but then finding that the bombs were ineffectual on the wet ground, they came back, gave chase and succeeded in catching two of the intruders whom they gave a good thrashing so that they had to be hospitalized. The measurement work was thus thwarted; the police who had been inactive so far now swung into action and F.I.R.s were lodged against a large number of persons – 40 persons from this village alone. Three or four TMC men have also been named in the F.I.R., but none arrested. Two women, Jasoda Majhi and Arati Burman made counter-complaints against Dhiren Bala, Abul Rahim and others for attacking and molesting them during the incident. But they too remain scot-free.

In the evening of the same day, the police raided a licensed liquor shop which villagers often visit after their day’s work and arrested 19 persons, only 1 of whom has been named in the FIR. On the day of our visit, they had still not got bail. Others are absconding, among them the husband of Lucy Mardi, who spoke to us. They have some patta land which is partly cultivated by them and partly by engaging labourers. The season will soon be over and Lucy’s land will remain fallow as her husband is not there to cultivate it. Most of the land which the pattadars have is not going to be cultivated this year. Anath Burman in Bagdipara has 12 bighas of rayoti land which is tilled by bargadars. His wife complained that this land has been occupied by the TMC men and the bargadars are not allowed to access it. In some cases bargadars are also being threatened. TMC men came with tractors and occupied the rayoti land of Madhab Ghosh and Bhupen Ghosh. Now outsiders have been hired to till that land.

What struck us was the atmosphere of terror prevailing in the village. Whole families have left the village; in some cases the women have returned, but they do not know how to resist this terror. The fear of crop failure had been looming large because of scanty rains; the present troubles are going to add to their woes. Attacks on Left-run panchayats is adding to the confusion. Even before we had left Bolpur, we came to know of another panchayat at Ruppur , where after attempts to insult and terrorize the woman pradhan, Niyoti Soren, had failed, 6 Left members were persuaded/ induced/ forced to turn over to the other side so that the panchayat came under the control of TMC.

4. Our team visited Bhangar in South 24 Parganas on 17.08.11 because media reports told us that in some places in Bhangar where attempts at eviction had been taken by newly powerful political groups, effective resistance had enabled the peasants to hold on to their land. The village visited by us was Sonatikuri in the Tardaha village Panchayat area in the Bhangar Block. It is situated in a low-lying area behind the huge Kolkata Leather Complex at Bantala, off the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass. The land yields only one crop. Our respondents were Shakti, Dilip Koli, Anil Mondol, Bhadreswar Mondol, Urmila Mondol, Mina Mondol, Jasho Mondol, Menoka Mondol, Sumita Koli and others. From what they told us, it appeared that in 1972, the jotdars in this area, in order to evade the law and deprive the peasants who had been tilling the land for at least 2 or 3 generations, had distributed about 400 bighas of excess land to their own henchmen.

However, in 2004, through the efforts of the Kisan Sabha, this was annulled and patta was granted to about 150 peasants who had been tillers of the soil for a long time. The peasants were emphatic in stating that only those having no agricultural land of their own and making their livelihood from the soil had thus been granted pattas in 2004. The allegation that some people had benefited from this latest land-distribution in spite of the fact that they possessed some land, has been disproved. Each family got at most about 2-3 bighas of land, which meant that apart from raising paddy on this land, for the rest of the year, they had to work as day-labourers to make ends meet. The leather complex in the vicinity provided some opportunity for work; but this was largely contractual work and not regular employment at the Complex itself. Such work fetched a daily wage of about Rs.130/-, which is higher than the rates received by agricultural workers, but much lower than the going rates sanctioned by the Central Govt. But even here, according to the peasants, the atmosphere has changed and Trinamul Congress strongmen under the leadership of Arabul, notorious for his role in the Vedic Village disturbances last year, have been calling the shots in recent times. The peasants referred to lumpenization of sections of young people as a result of illegal activities being carried on by these elements.

Attempts at eviction had been made even after the Loksabha elections of 2009, but these were not successful. This time on, the disturbances started on 8 July, 2011. A huge procession led by outsiders entered the village and planted TMC flags on the patta land in the entire area. Similarly they planted their flags on rayoti land in Ushpara and ransacked shops belonging to CPI(M) supporters; they also ousted Adivasis like Bharat Munda, Nishi Munda, Kabiballav Munda and Sudo Sardar from their land. On 9 July, the peasants went to the police station (KLC) to lodge their complaint, but received no response. In fact, one of the women alleged that at that time Arabul was sitting inside the thana. On the other hand, after 23 July, false cases were lodged against 157 peasants in the entire Tardaha area. With the encouragement of some of the Kisan Sabha leaders in the area, however, the peasants decided that they would try to reclaim what was rightfully theirs; they were anxious that they would not be able to raise their yearly crops if they were unable to plant the seedlings in time. So on 23 July, under the leadership of Kisan Sabha, the peasants congregated in a huge procession in which women participated in large numbers; they entered their patta land, threw away the TMC flags and planted Kisan Sabha flags, thus taking possession of the land once again. But the tension continued; the peasants were prevented from tilling the soil with tractors with threats and the police and administration were still quite inert.

A week later, the intruders were back. Some of them belonged to the same village, others had come from outside. The peasants of Sonatikuri mentioned one particular area (dag no. 815) consisting of about 36 bighas where conflict was particularly intense. Here, according to them, Left Front supporters had got patta on 24 bighas, while the rest of the land had been allotted to supporters of TMC. One elderly man named Anil Mandal said that when on the morning of 30 July, he saw about 300-400 TMC men coming in strength, he called all the women who were at home at that time and went with them to confront the TMC army. Urmila Mandal said that she was standing on the border of her family’s land which her husband was tilling when the family to whom the next plot of land belonged, both men and women, attacked her with bamboo rods and threw her on the ground. Another woman named Mina Mandal was about to be hit on the head and was rescued in the nick of time. While this conflict was going on, a large contingent arrived from the thana. A large number of men from both sides were then called to the thana. The women also accompanied them, but the latter complained that they were not allowed by the officers to sit inside the thana. Since they would not go home without their men, they then continued to wait on the road under the scorching sun. However, at this stage, as things were getting out of hand, the block administration intervened. They called both parties and eventually gave their verdict in favour of patta-holders. They said that those who had possession of the land after the annulment of the 1972 settlement must be allowed to till the land.

Thus the tillers of the soil for generations have been able to hold on to their land for the time being through the intervention of the administration in the teeth of concerted attack. They were able to plant the paddy seedlings finally; but what they achieved through their unified struggle has now been largely destroyed through the inclemency of nature. Heavy rains have flooded their fields and the seedlings are now under water over a vast area comprising not less than 1200 bighas. They took us to see the fields now under a vast sheet of water with the green heads of the young rice-plants showing here and there. Nothing could be saved of the crop and since the Government had refrained from declaring a flood-situation in the State, they had little hope of receiving any compensation. They pointed out that had they been able to plant their seedlings in time, they would perhaps have been able to save some of their crops from the flood. They also showed us a place where a small bridge had been sanctioned and building materials had been brought, but which they are unable to construct because of TMC opposition. In consequence, people are having to wade across knee-deep water to reach their houses. In spite of this, the men and women who met us were in good spirit. They told us that they had been tilling this land for generations; they would rather die resisting than give up what was theirs by right. One woman, Sumati Koli, SHG leader in the area, said that they are constantly threatened and jeered at by TMC supporters who are their own neighbours; some such young men remarked that her sankha (sign of a married woman) would soon be broken by them. But she turned round on them and answered back because she knew that if she showed that she was afraid, they would only feel encouraged.

In Sonatikuri, most of the peasants belonged to one of the most numerous scheduled castes in West Bengal, the poundrakshatriyas; the next spot we visited on the same day had an Adivasi settlement consisting of about 60-70 families. This village was called Harapur, Panchshotopara, under Kheadah-1 village panchayat within Sonarpur Block. The people here belong to the Munda community; while still retaining their language and some of their cultural practices, they are much embattled by the changing world around them and are being gradually absorbed into it. Apart from homestead land, they also have patta rights to some agricultural land; but the Metropolis being so near, the younger people often travel to Jadavpur and Bagha Jatin in search of supplementary livelihood and earn some money as day-labourers in construction work. Even the mud-house of the panchayat pradhan bears the mark of poverty; but all the children, including girls, go to school.

At the time of our visit, the panchayat pradhan, Bikash Munda was not at home. But we managed to meet him later and obtained from him some details about the history of land relations in this Adivasi neighbourhood in the village to which he himself belonged. He told us that their community have been residents here for several generations and agriculture has been their main source of livelihood. In this panchayat area of Kheadah, the Mundas had been actively involved in the land struggle of 1967-69. He said that he has heard stories from his father of Kisan Sabha leaders coming and spending the night in the village and sharing their meagre fare of rice and boiled water-lily stalks. Nine and a-half bighas of agricultural land, which had belonged to two Adivasi brothers Rajan and Sajan, had been alienated, but through a long process of litigation, they got a court order restoring the land to them in 1972. However, on the same day as they got the order, they were forcibly made to surrender it by the opposite party, the family of one Shashibhushan Naskar. During Left Front regime, the land including the afore-mentioned nine and a-half bighas was declared vested and the right of the Adivasis to it was recorded although they had not got pattas on it as yet. But they had been regularly cultivating paddy, some vegetables and even flowers on the land and growing some fish in the inundated areas. After the Assembly elections, the erstwhile jotdars had started eyeing this land again, as it would be very profitable if bheris could be set up here.

We visited Harapur to enquire into an incident that had taken place on 15 June, 2011 in connection with this land, as a consequence of which 28 year-old Moghai Munda died most tragically leaving behind a distraught mother and a young bride he had married only a couple of years back. 17 year-old Ajit Munda, Moghai’s cousin studying in Class XII, told us that on the day of the incident he had gone to put up a fence around a small plot of land belonging to him in which he had planted many trees. But a neighbour called Gopal Naskar, who had created trouble on earlier occasions and had told Ajit that he would get his dues once election results were over, appeared and tried to prevent him from doing his work. When Ajit protested, he pounced upon him and punched him so that he fell on the ground. Other members of Gopal’s family also started beating him. When his brother Robi Munda and his sisters-in-law Kakoli and Jhuma tried to save him, they were also attacked. All of them then retreated home. But soon after, Gopal Naskar, not satisfied with what he had already done, called up a large number of TMC goons, armed with bamboo rods and shovels, and raided the Munda settlement, specially targeting the 6 families who were immediate relatives of Ajit. Moghai, who had just returned from the field, tried to intervene and was set upon by the mob and beaten most brutally. He was thrown into a pond and attacked with sticks and shovels until he lost consciousness. According to his relatives, at this time he sustained kidney injury which later (28 July) caused his death. Apart from Moghai, three others were seriously injured, among them Sujata Munda who was hit on the head with a shovel. Moghai’s elderly mother, who pleaded with them, was forced to hitch up her sari and was threatened that a shovel would be thrust into her genitals if she interfered.

All the family members ran away from their home in a state of shock, and Moghai was rescued by some other women in the neighbourhood. Moghai and the other three were taken to Chittaranjan Sebasadan in Kolkata for treatment. The women from the 6 households came back later in the day; but the men stayed away in fear of their lives. According to the women, bamboo rods had been kept in readiness at a doctor’s dispensary in the neighbourhood, which showed that the TMC goons were only waiting for a pretext to attack the Adivasi families. Around the same time, they also planted TMC flags on the land belonging to the Adivasis and made away with the fish in their ponds.

Police came in the afternoon. When the women found that they were going away only after taking the statement of the Naskar family, they came forward and forced the police to take their statements as well and to have a look at the damage done to their houses. The police came back again at dead of night and abused them and said that it served them right for getting drunk and fighting among themselves. Both parties should be prepared to go to jail. Later the Munda families also went to the thana and lodged an FIR. Another FIR was lodged after Moghai’s death. But so far, no arrests have been made. On the contrary, the day after the incident, the Naskars lodged a complaint against Moghai and others for allegedly snatching ornaments of the women of the Naskar family, for which the Adivasis had to get bail. Post mortem examination of Moghai’s body was being denied; they succeeded in getting it done after much trouble. But the false story that the death was the result of quarrel within the Adivasi community, that it happened when the Adivasis were in an inebriated state and that no one else was involved, is being spread; even some newspapers have published this false story without any investigation, obviously to protect the miscreants. In the mean time, the Munda families are under constant threat; bombs are being thrown into their yard at night; abuses are being hurled at them; the girls are afraid of going to school.

Interestingly, it is likely that Moghai’s family and relatives were TMC supporters, because when they were in Kolkata for Moghai’s treatment, they had gone to the Chief Minister’s residence at Kalighat and tried to meet her. They did eventually meet Mukul Roy, a Central Minister from TMC and he directed Firdausi Begum, the MLA of the area, to sort out the matter. Apparently, she even met them once; but the outcome was nil. She also seemed to be putting the same construction on the incident as the above-mentioned media. Of course, at the level where people like Moghai eke out their existence, it often does not make much sense to think that political affiliation is a fixity; categorisation as Left Front or TMC supporters is fragile; any shift in the situation may cause a fracture in the categories. But the significant fact is that in spite of the fulsome expressions of sympathy for the Adivasis who are some of the most deprived sections of society, when it comes to the crunch, TMC cadres and leaders have no compunction in leaving them helpless, even if the latter are their supporters.

Malini Bhattacharya, Rama Das, Gairika Ghosh, Bhagabati Mandal, Mihir Bhattacharya


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