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Violence in India's Bengal Claims Lives, Forces Hundreds to Flee

  • Nilanjana Bhowmick

India's rapid economic development is taking a toll on some segments of the population, and a recent village council election in a district of west Bengal, where the ruling party was ousted after 30 years rule, has highlighted the clash between rural farmers and proponents of industrialization. Nilanjana Bhowmick visited the area of Nandigram, where the ruling Marxist party's defeat reignited violence that over the past 18 months has claimed dozens of lives and forced hundreds from their homes.

Villagers in the region of Nandigram say there has been renewed violence since the Communist Party of India-Marxist was ousted in council elections earlier this month in Nandigram and Singur, two districts in west Bengal state, where the government has earmarked vast tracks of farmland for industrial development.

Following its drubbing at the polls, the Marxist party backed off its plan to acquire and develop the farmland.

There have been repeated clashes in Nandigram between supporters of the ruling Marxists and their opponents ever since the development plan was unveiled 18 months ago. Amnesty International says at least 25 people were killed in clashes in January and March of last year, and at least 20 women were "sexually assaulted by private militias allied to the ruling [Marxists]."

The Marxists and their opponents blame each other for the post election violence.

Bhabani Das is the leader of the a group called the Committee against Land Acquisition, known as the BUPC, which represents mostly farmers opposed to the industrialization plan.

Das says the election results, have made the ruling party more desperate. He says the police cannot be trusted, because they are not impartial.

Hundreds of people have fled the latest violence to a relief camp.

Mehrunnisa Bibi says she escaped with her husband and daughter-in-law, who she says were beaten up.

Bibi says "thugs" backing the Marxists entered their home Friday morning, breaking down the door and saying they would be killed for voting against the ruling party.

The doctor in charge of the Nandigram hospital, Suvabrata Maiti, says a steady stream of injured have been arriving since Friday.

"I have treated 10 to 15 patients in the last two hours," said Maiti. "Some serious patients I have sent to the town hospital. There was one patient who was almost dying today. Others have been beaten severely. Some have their heads smashed in. I have treated more than 700 patients since the strife started [Friday]."

The displaced say the authorities are doing nothing for them and there is not enough to eat.

Bablu Bhowmick, the village development officer, says people returning home should have police protection.

Bhowmick says authorities have been working in cooperation with the police. He says some people who were sent back to their villages earlier returned to the camp because of the latest violence. He says authorities have to depend on the police to ensure that the villagers can go home safely.

Amnesty International reported in January human rights abuses during violence in November 2007 "took place in the face of inaction by or acquiescence" of state authorities.

On Friday, the police initiated a new round of talks between the Marxists and the main political opponents, the Trinamool Congress party.

Suvendu Dasgupta, a leading development economist, says the violence in Nandigram shows what happens when the government does not take people's interests into account in pursuing its rapid economic growth policies.

"I think it will be remembered as a sign of protest against the WTO [World Trade Organization] related policies and programs, that ultimately the interest of the common man, their interest has to be taken into consideration. Nandigram is a sign towards that I must say," said Dasgupta.

Although the Marxist party retained control of 13 of 17 districts in west Bengal, the violence in Nandigram underscores it is increasingly vulnerable.

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