On a warm Friday afternoon on April 12, right outside the gate of Banga Bhawan, the official guest house of the Government of West Bengal on Hailey road in New Delhi, a 21-year-old Sariful from Bhangar, West Bengal is addressing around 35 odd protesters.
This protest has the support of various student organisations, workers’ rights groups, etc. Amongst the notable organisations which have lent support to the protest are the Bhangar Solidarity Committee Delhi, CPI (ML) Red Star, JNU Students’ Union and the All India Students’ Association.
The target is the chief minister of West Bengal Mamata Banerjee and her political party Trinamool Congress. The protest is against the state’s handling of the Bhangar land agitation in 24 South Parganas, West Bengal against the setting up of a power transmission project.
Sariful says, “On April 6, after we are accompanied by the police to file our nominations for the polls (panchayat), Trinamool’s goons attack our companions. They hit them so bad that blood starts coming out… They take guns, bombs and attack us.”
Sariful, a resident of Bhangar, West Bengal arrived in New Delhi on April 12 to file a petition in the Supreme Court along with his friend Shukla from Kolkata, regarding the alleged actions of the Trinamool Congress workers which prevented 20 candidates in Bhangar from filing nominations for the panchayat polls. Three of them managed file nominations after a Calcutta High Court directive but the rest still haven’t been able to. But Sariful and Shukla have to wait until April 18 now. The Calcutta high court has put a stay on all the panchayat election-related activities till April 17. This year’s panchayat elections have been marred by political violence.
How is the agitation so big that it has attracted the attention of student organisations, workers’ movements, political parties, etc. so far away from Bhangar?
In around 13 acres of land in Bhangar, Power Grid Corporation of India Limited, a public sector undertaking in Gurugram began the process of building a sub-station in 2013, as per a report in the Scroll. According to news reports, the villagers who are protesting allege that they were forced to part with their land and that they hardly had any information about the project.
However, the tension only became visible in late 2016. It took place in the community development block Bhangar 12 – in 16 of the total 60 villages.
A “Jami, Jibika, Poribesh O Bastutantra Raksha Committee” was formed in the year 2016 to spearhead the Bhangar agitation. One of the members of the group, Jahangir Alam told the Caravan last year that the men of Arabul Islam, a TMC member who won the legislative assembly election from Bhangar in 2006, would bully the farmers to sell their land. He said, “People in the area are under constant threat from Arabul’s men. If they want land to be sold, then no one has the option to not sell their own land.”
Another key organiser of the Bhangar agitations, Mosharef Ali, told the Hindustan Times, “Arabul and his son having the last words in Polerhat (gram panchayat where the project is coming up), they managed to acquire the required 16-acre land within a few months. People were aggrieved but lacked the strength to confront.”
In January 2017, two villagers from Bhangar were killed when clashes broke out between the residents of Bhangar and the police. The Trinamool Congress had claimed that it was ‘outsiders’ and not the police who were responsible for the firing which resulted in the deaths.
The damage to the environment is a major concern of the people spearheading the Bhangar agitation as well. The power grid is using sulfur hexafluoride (SF6). Hindustan Times reports that one villager said, “One engineer told us that any accidental spillage of the SF6 gas could lead to tragedies like the one in Bhopal…” However, according to Srikumar Mallick, former head of the electrical engineering department at Bengal Engineering and Science University, “There is indeed no alternative to SF6… and the environmental concerns appear to be hugely exaggerated.”
Whatever may be the reality of the dangers of SF6, it has managed to rally enough locals against the present action of the Mamata Banerjee government.
The fear of electrocution is also a major reason behind the current agitation. According to a report in the Hindustan Times, in October 2016, some workers experienced ‘mild’ electric shocks after one touched a loose electric wire which was stung across two electric poles. Following this, villagers started to prevent the installation of towers.
But what is the point of protesting so far from the original site of the protest, which is Bhangar. What is the significance of such protests in the capital city of Delhi? Nayanjyoti, a PhD student in Delhi University and a member of the Krantikari Naujawan Sabha tells me that in terms of impact, “People here also are affected by it. Forget Banga Bhawan and whatever. But the thing is, the people who are here, will stand by a farmer’s movement, a worker’s movement, or a general people’s movement… to connect these struggles. That’s the thing. For example, students’ union and students’ groups are participating, they are also being attacked, right? So, that connects it (the movements).”