TMC Protégé Turned Bete Noire: Why BJP Pitted Suvendu Against Didi in Nandigram's Bloody Fields

Sujit Nath
·13-min read

Kolkata: It was around 11.45 pm and there was nip in the air on that fateful night in January 2007. Soumen, manager for a resort and well connected in the area, was about to leave the Green Valley Resort in Tamluk in East Midnapore when a journalist asked him to arrange for 20 litres of petrol as there was no fuel in his official car.

The odd request around midnight came as a surprise for Soumen. “Dada (elder brother) will arrange it tomorrow morning,” said Soumen.

But the journalist said he wanted it right then as he wanted to enter Nandigram by early morning of January 7, 2007. “It’s good to reach Nandigram police station early otherwise we will not be able to reach due to dug up roads and extra vigilant armed guards of Bhumi Uchchhed Pratirodh Committee (BUPC.) There is a risk if we travel during daytime.”

The BUPC (baked by the Maoists) was an organisation that gave stiff armed resistance against the land acquisition required for chemical SEZ planned by the Salim Group of Indonesia. The SEZ was a dream project of Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, the then chief minister of West Bengal.

Soumen agreed and somehow he arranged the fuel. At around 1 in the morning, the media person started his journey from the Green Valley Resort. A senior journalist (now retired) from a well-known English daily also accompanied him after his car was vandalised while trying to enter Nandigram on January 6, 2007.

After facing many hurdles (due to dug up roads and blocked lanes with wooden logs), the two journalists reached Nandigram police station at 3am and waited for the dawn to break.

It was a risky decision. Despite being warned by the editor in Kolkata, the journalist was adamant to enter Nandigram in the odd hours because no authentic news was coming out of the ‘liberated zone’.

The area around Nandigram police station bore a deserted look and no one dared to enter inside the villages.

As planned, the journalists contacted a BUPC member, Nishikanta Mondal, (later killed by Maoists on suspicion of being a police informer) and requested him to create a safe passage through Sonachura, Garchakraberia and Tekhali for coverage where the incident of brutal clashes took place between CPI (M) and BUPC supporters (backed by the Maoists).

Around 4 am, an inebriated man in his thirties came with his ‘Vano’ (tricycle rickshaw used to carry goods as well as commuters through the unmotorable roads inside the villages) and said, “Nishi da pathiyechhey (Nishikanta has sent me)”.

The situation was tense and only a man in an inebriated state could dare to enter villages inside Nandigram.

The media persons along with a photographer left their car at the Nandigram police station and sat in the Vano. While passing through Sonachura area, a group of street dogs fighting over a piece of ‘charred flesh’ drew the photographer’s attention.

“Stop,” the journalist tolf the ‘Vano’ puller.

What they saw next (after getting closer) was a ghastly site of dogs mauling a charred, headless human body. The sight sent shivers down their spine.

The photographer quickly captured the image and, after a brief interaction with the villagers at Sonachura, Garchakraberia and Tekhali, they all vacated the place fearing for their lives as even policemen/combat forces were hesitant then to enter the village.

Next day the grisly photographs and a ‘first-person account’ of dogs mauling a body in Nandigram shook the entire nation. The international media also started keeping a close watch in Nandigram.

Later, it was found that the charred body belonged to an active CPI (M) leader Shankar Samanta who was working in favour of the SEZ in the area.

The trouble had started in Nandigram when the Left-Front government decided to set up a chemical hub in Nandigram by the Salim Group of Indonesia. As per plan, nearly 10,000 acres of land was required for the Special Economic Zone and the government started the acquisition process.

During the initial stage of land acquisition, the villagers, mainly supporters of opposition parties, formed a united forum to save their land under the banner of Bhumi Uchchhed Pratirodh Committee (BUPC).

Reports of violent clashes between the CPI (M) and BUPC members started pouring in from all across Nandigram.

The BUPC members blocked all major roads leading into the region from January 2007 to March 2007. Many complaints were registered at Nandigram and Khejuri police stations alleging arson and looting, but police could not do anything fearing Maoists’ presence in the area (believed to be led by Mallojula Koteshwar Rao alias Kishen Ji). Thousands of Left-Front supporters were attacked, killed, burnt alive and driven out from their homes.

Fearing death, thousands of these supporters, workers and leaders took shelter in nearby camps set up by the then ruling government.

Situation worsened on March 14 2007, when the local administration was asked by the then Left Front government to restore the law and order situation and to free Nandigram from BUPC’s control.

A large contingent of police force led by then Inspector General of Police Arun Gupta along with Superintendent of Police Ganghi Srinivasan and Additional Superintendent of Police Tanmay Roychowdhury launched a crackdown against nearly 5,000 BUPC members.

It was a pitched battle which led the police to open fire (as mobs went out of control) and 14 people were shot dead on March 14, 2007. Many of them remain missing till date.

Following the Nandigram firing, former Bengal Governor and Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson, Gopal Krishna Gandhi, issued a statement, which said, “The news of deaths by police firing has filled me with a sense of cold horror.”

After months of fierce battle between the Left and the BUPC (backed by the Maoists), Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee decided to cancel the SEZ project.

On September 3, Bhattacharjee offered ‘Nayachar’ (an island in the Hooghly River, off Haldia in East Medinipur) for the same project to the Salim group. However, the project didn’t materialise.

The battle of Nandigram left more than 3,000 people homeless and over 60 dead. It also drew the attention of civil society people like Sunil Gangopadhyay, Aparna Sen and Rituporno Ghosh. They all visited Nandigram and raised their voice against the Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee government.

On November 21, 2007, the parliament held an urgent discussion on Nandigram and ultimately the Calcutta High Court on March 16, 2007 asked the CBI to investigate the incident.

On December 18, 2013, CBI gave clean chit to Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and, in its charge-sheet submitted before additional chief judicial magistrate (Haldia), claimed: “It has been established that the assembly (of BUPC workers) was an unlawful and they obstructed police from performing their legal duty. More than 30 police personnel were injured.”

The CBI report came as a big relief for the state government and it is believed that the Nandigram movement was a deep conspiracy against the Left-Front government in Bengal.

A day after the Nandigram firing on March 14, 2007, Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee saw a huge political opportunity to oust the 34 years rule of the Left-Front.

She, along with a large number of supporters, stormed into the ‘liberated zone’ on March 15, 2007 to stand beside the victims’ families.

Mamata’s convoy started from the Green Valley Resort — which is nearly 54 km from Nandigram police station. The place was chosen for Mamata’s stay considering the volatile situation in and around Nandigram.

She reached Nandigram in the afternoon and while interacting with the victims at the hospital, she complained of suffocation and mild chest pain. A man in his thirties – wearing a crisp white kurta – was noticeably looking tense among many.

He immediately arranged a special ward at Nandigram Sub-divisional hospital where Mamata was rushed and put on oxygen support. The scene outside the hospital was tense and ‘the man wearing a crisp white kurta’ was equally stressed.

“Please don’t raise slogans as Didi needs some rest. The world is watching Nandigram and our movement. Didi is fine. Let Didi come out of the hospital…we will march towards Sonachura, Bhangabera, Garchakraberia, Tekhali, Tengua, Khejuri and Gelimgham to show solidarity to our brother and sisters,” he said.

Three days later on March 17, 2007 (after the Nandigram firing), there was a major chaos at Sonachura Market when three Krishi Jami Bachao Committee (KJBC) leaders, identified as Gaur Hari Barik, Purna Pal and Buddhadeb Mirda¸ were allegedly kidnapped by the CPI (M) cadres and taken towards Khejuri.

Again, this man — who joined Mamata’s camp in 2000 after leaving Congress — was swung into action. He asked his men to start a massive hunt to find out the ‘kidnapped’ KJBC leaders. He informed the local police who later rescued all the victims from an abandoned house in Khejuri.

Be it every movement, political and public meetings – this man was actively seen standing beside Mamata Banerjee in her bad and good times as her shadow.

Years have passed and the rise of this man in Midnapore has certainly helped Mamata secure the power of corridors in Bengal as she managed to oust the 34-year rule of Left-Front government with a huge mandate in 2011.

Needless to say, the man is none other than Suvendu Adhikari.

Many prominent leaders such as Sisir Adhikari (Suvendu’s father), Siddiqullah Chowdhury and Sheikh Sufiyan had joined the movement — which many believed Mamata had highjacked for her political mileage.

Suvendu’s efforts to strengthen TMC in ‘Rarh Bangla’ didn’t go unnoticed and he got his due respect. From Member of the Parliament, to state ministers to chairperson of the co-operative banks – Mamata rewarded him for his struggle in Nandigram.

Many believed that Suvendu earned it but equally agreed that it was TMC which gave him the platform to show his political acumen.

So what went wrong after 20 years of his association with the TMC? What prompted him to distance himself from Mamata Banerjee? Why did the BJP show desperation to rope him in the saffron brigade?

Many in the party believe that Suvendu, who was in two minds, finally decided to say goodbye to TMC when most of the old guards including him were replaced with new faces as in-charge of the districts on July 23, 2020.

That was the last nail in the coffin.

Since then, Suvendu remained happy with the ‘attitude’ of a few TMC leaders, including Mamata’s nephew Abhishek Banerjee, and willingly opted out of key party meetings.

In the meantime, in September, 2017 Suvendu was probed by the Enforcement Directorate in Narada case.

The situation turned bitter after Mamata sprung a surprise by show-causing nearly 200 TMC workers/leaders alone from Nandigram – the area which Suvendu is emotionally connected with in East Midnapore.

Despite receiving complaints over ‘ration scam’ from all over the districts – Mamata’s wrath against nearly 200 party workers from Nandigram drew attention of the political experts in the state.

Amid speculations on his stand in the party, Suvendu put the party in an uncomfortable situation after he gave a miss to a government programme in Jhargram on August 9, 2020 to mark International Day of World’s Indigenous People.

Since 2017, his absence from crucial party meetings created a discomfort in the party as many felt the gesture would go against TMC in the crucial assembly polls in 2021.

And, they were right.

Twenty years of his association with Didi came to an end on November 27, 2020 when he resigned from Mamata’s Cabinet.

Eighteen days of his resignation were followed with heaps of praise from the BJP leaders about his political clout in Bengal and a call from BJP national secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya to convey birthday wishes to him on December 15 and centrally approved Z-category security — clear all the air over his future political stand in Bengal.

He shared the dais with Amit Shah in Midnapore on December 19 where the Union Home Minister held a public rally.

But why, despite Suvendu’s poor performance (as a district in-charge in Purulia, Jhargram, Murshidabad, Malda, East Midnapore, West Midnapore, Bankura and in Bishnupur) in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, was the BJP keen to have Suvendu in its kitty?

The answer is, both Mamata, who came to power riding the waves of anti-land acquisition movements in Nandigram and Singur, and Suvendu are ‘products’ of the Nandigram movement. And BJP wants to hit it hard where it will hurt TMC the most.

With a strong anti-incumbency campaign, BJP has decided to field Suvendu against Mamata in Nandigram, which is being touted to be the mother of all battles.

Alluring more TMC leaders – apart from Suvendu – few months ahead of the polls was simply a BJP’s well scripted plan to spread the message that TMC is a sinking ship and the voters have only one option and that is BJP.

A quick look in Suvendu’s performance in 2019 Lok Sabha revealed that TMC has lost nine Lok Sabha seats out of 13 where he is known as a mass leader and believed to have enough clout among the people in Purulia, Jhargram, Murshidabad, Malda, East Midnapore, West Midnapore, Bankura and in Bishnupur.

In total, there are 13 Lok Sabha seats and 86 assembly seats in Purulia, Murshidabad, Malda, West Midnapore, Jhargram, East Midnapore, Bankura and in Bishnupur where Suvendu is believed to be an excellent taskmaster in booth management.

However, going with the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, except four seats – which are Kanthi (won by Suvendu’s father Sishir Adhikari on TMC ticket but BJP gained by 33.54 per cent vote share while Sishir loses 3.82 per cent vote share), Tamluk (won by Suvendu’s brother Dibyendu on TMC ticket but BJP gained by 30.54 per cent vote share while Dibyendu loses 3.52 per cent vote share), Jangipur (won by TMC’s Khalilur Rahman who defeated BJP’s Mafuja Khatun), and Murshidabad (won by TMC’s Abu Taher Khan) – all the seats were lost by the ruling TMC.

In a nutshell, out of 13 Lok Sabha seats, TMC won only four seats (two went to Congress) and except Jangipur and Murshidabad – in all the seats TMC’s vote share gone down significantly (where Suvendu was in charge), while BJP’s rose to nearly 29-30 per cent.

The BJP all alone managed to win significant seven out of 13 seats (two seats, including Berhampur and Malda South went to Congress) and made deep inroads in these districts which are said to be Suvendu’s bastion (when he was in TMC).

But despite all this, why did the BJP decide to field Suvendu against Mamata in Nandigram?

The reason is: He is the only strong candidate who can contest against Mamata because of his good presence in East Midnapore.

Only time will tell who emerges a winner in Nandigram. What is clear is that the one who loses will suffer a deep impact on the political career not only Bengal but in national politics.