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She fights, she suffers

She fights, she suffers

Author: Soma Mitra
Publication: The Hindu Business Line
Date: December 21, 2007
URL: http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/life/2007/12/21/stories/2007122150020200.htm

'Peace' may have returned to Nandigram… but for the women whose lives are shattered by the land clashes, the fight for justice has just begun.

In the battles between the rival camps where land was lost and reclaimed, women and children were used as human shields in Nandigram.

Once upon a time, Satengabari was a picture-perfect rural hamlet in the interiors of West Bengal's East Midnapore district. Mud houses, tethered cattle, sunflower fields and date trees exuded a pristine and serene appeal. Today, it is a charred ruin - much like its women. Once they were happy women, working in the fields, looking after the livestock, caring for their children, and their laughter resounded around their homes.

Today, they are homeless, their bodies wrecked with abuse, their minds shattered. Akroja Bibi, 40, recounts the horror of being caught in the ongoing land war in Nandigram between the CPI(M) cadres and members of the Trinamool Congress-backed Bhoomi Ucched Pratirodh (Resistance to Land Eviction) Committee (BUPC).
The catastrophe

In December 2006, the West Bengal government had put up notifications through the Haldia Development Authority in Nandigram to acquire 10,000 acres for a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) to set up a proposed chemical hub. Akroja joined the resistance formed by the BUPC to protect her home. Violent clashes broke out between the two groups. In the first round of fighting, the BUPC prevailed and managed to drive out about 1,500 families supporting the CPI(M) from different villages in the area. These families took shelter at a camp in Khejuri. Violence escalated when CPI(M) tried to send its supporters back and the Tekhali bridge, which is between Khejuri and Nandigram, became the battleground.

Seeing the deteriorating situation the State government withdrew its notification. However, the BUPC refused to give up the grabbed agricultural land and clashes continued with attempts to recapture the lands lost.
Akroja's tragedy

One night, about 30 men surrounded Akroja's house. They first threatened and then raped her and her minor daughters, Mansura and Ansura. While her mother-in-law was spared, the marauders carried the little girls away even as their mother lay helpless and severely injured. Currently at Tamluk Sub-Divisional Hospital in East Midnapore, Akroja is fighting to get both her daughters and justice.

"It was a nightmare. I was at home with my mother-in-law and two daughters. Someone knocked at the door but I did not open it. Then they broke down the door. Five to six masked men carrying guns entered my house and attacked me. I recognised some of the faces. I cannot forget the horror of watching my daughters being raped - after being raped myself. My husband had fled after threats were issued earlier. After raping them, the men took away my daughters. I am all alone," laments Akroja. Her case has been registered at Nandigram police station after a medical report was submitted by Dr Sabitendra Patra, Superintendent of Tamluk hospital, according to S.S. Panda, Superintendent of Police, East Midnapore District.
Staging a war

The events in Nandigram can be recounted as stages of a destructive war. First the SEZ notice, then the protest by the BUPC.

Despite the withdrawal of the SEZ notification, violence continued for 11 months. The aim of both warring factions - BUPC and CPI(M) - was land grab and dominance over panchayat territories, point out locals. While women are soft targets during any war, in Nandigram they were also made weapons by the two sides.

When the setting up of the SEZ was announced, the villagers took over the administration of the area and all the roads to the villages were cut off. The administration was then directed to break the BUPC's resistance and a massive operation with at least 3,000 policemen along with armed CPI(M) cadres was launched in March, charge local residents.

However, prior information of the impending action reached the rival camp which amassed a huge crowd of villagers at the entry points into Nandigram with women and children forming the front ranks. In the resulting mayhem, at least 14 people were killed.
There have been charges of women being assaulted and raped, houses looted and burnt, and several children missing in the resulting chaos. Relief camps on both sides ended up sheltering thousands, and when the "recapture" of lost lands was organised in November, there were accusations that women and children were used as shields.

Government offices, schools and health centres were shut down for 11 months. No developmental work took place. The life of the average woman in the area was terribly affected. Cultivation of sunflower, paddy and betel leaf provided meagre remuneration earlier, but during the 'war', that too ceased. The minimum wage programme was also discontinued. "People in these areas make sparse living from cultivating sunflower or selling date palm juice. The minimum '100 days wage programme' gave them a regular income.

"With violence breaking out, all government offices at the 'panchayat' level were shut down and so the programme automatically came to a standstill, ending all sources of income for poor households," says Rajarshi Roy, District Livelihood Development Officer, East Midnapore. Poverty and starvation on the one hand, torture, rape and death on the other - the women were the worst sufferers as most men had fled the area or joined the fighting brigades.

School-going Sunita Mondal, 15, of Sonachura was found hanging from a tree. Her body had marks of torture. Prabhati Mitra, 75, of Gokulnagar village was shot at point- blank range while she was sleeping in her hut.

Caught in the crossfire between the two warring sides, Mona Mitra, 9, suffered bullet injuries while she was playing in the courtyard of her house. Kalpana Samui, 45, was admitted to Egra hospital with crossfire bullet injuries. All of them had one thing in common: they were the ones left behind in the villages to face the attackers, irrespective of which side they belonged to. Women were central in this war; as they have always been politically aware and active in West Bengal, there was adequate reason to target them.

Narmada Shith, decided to switch from one side to the other. The result, it is alleged, is that she has been a driven out of her out of her house and village along with her family. Her teenage sons are still missing. The rest of the family has taken shelter at the Brajamohan School camp.
The battle continues…

Apparently there is a new "sunrise" in Nandigram today. An uneasy peace has returned. Red flags flutter amidst blackened mud bricks that were once homes. But the women whose lives have been ruined have neither forgotten nor forgiven.

For them, the fight has just begun. Each day, one brave soul or other is coming forward with a horror story - either to the media, the National Commission for Women, the CBI or representatives of different political parties.

They are raising their voices collectively, insisting on cases being registered in their demand for justice. The court has ordered compensation for the victims but they are not satisfied.

They are telling their stories to the world, in an effort to be heard and to ensure that suppression does not become the by-word for atrocities on women.

Women's Feature Service

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