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Police Rampage in West Bengal Leaves 14 Dead - State-Directed Land Seizures Facilitate Corporate Impunity

On 14 March 2007 a force comprising police and paramilitary operatives raided the village of Nandigram in West Bengal. The ensuing rampage against unarmed civilians saw at least 14 murdered and more than 200 injured. The village is at the centre of a new land seizure dispute in West Bengal, where the state government has undertaken repressive measures against all who oppose its policy of forced acquisition of lands for industrialisation.

In the case of the areas around Nandigram, the state government has proposed that a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) be established which is to be handed over to the Salim Group conglomerate of Indonesia. The Salim Group was one of the key business groups during the Suharto dictatorship which thrived under the oppressive conditions of the New Order's cronyism where independent trade unions were obliterated and military control reigned supreme.

In response to the brutal attack in Nadigram, trade unions and social activists from across the political spectrum in India have united in condemnation of the West Bengal government's actions. In an emergency measure the IUF-affiliated Paschim Banga Khet Majoor Samity (PBKMS), along with fraternal organisations, successfully petitioned the Kolkata High Court to ensure the future safety of the residents of Nadigram (a summary of the ruling of the Court prepared by Swapan Ganguly, PBKMS General Secretary, is set out below).

Following on from the continued violence against those opposing land siezure in Singur (where the transnational company Tata intends to build an auto plant - send protest messages here) it seems as if West Bengal has become the latest state in India where transnational corporations can rely on compliant state governments and police to mete out violence for their benefit while seeking to remain aloof from the events caused by investment decisions.

The Association for Protection of Democratic Rights along with Paschim Banga Khet Majoor Samity, National Alliance of People's Movement and others put forward a petition to the Kolkata High Court urging immediate intervention of the court to reinstate safety and security of the villagers in Nandigram. The organisations also pleaded for an interim order restraining the state administration preventing them from reaching Nandigram to provide assistance to injured and deceased villagers.

In response to the above appeal on 15th March 2007, a Division Bench of the High Court comprising Honourable Chief Justice S S Nijjar and Honourable Justice Pinaki Chandra Ghosh passed an order and reprimanded the state government stating "we are satisfied that this action of the police department is wholly unconstitutional and can not be justified under any provision of law." The court also stated "such kind of force can not be justified except in the cases of armed insurgency or warlike situation. Innocent farmers and villagers can hardly be put into the aforesaid bracket."

The court in its order directed the following:

  • The court directed the district administration to ensure that the unclaimed dead bodies are handed over to the appropriate authorities and the identified dead bodies are handed over to the lawful claimants after due legal formalities have been concluded, such as post mortem and inquest report, so that the relatives are able to perform the last rites of the deceased.
  • The court directed the CBI to immediately send an investigating team to the strife -torn area and look into the circumstances that led to the police firing which claimed innumerable casualties in Nandigram. The CBI team is directed to immediately visit Nandigram and any other surrounding affected area and collect the entire relevant materials of firing by the police and combat forces to be presented before the court in the form of a report.
  • The state government has also been directed to file an affidavit setting out the reasons for the police action which has been taken against the population of Nandigram by resorting indiscriminate firing by the police. The affidavit should also disclose the material on the basis of which the order for firing was issued.
  • The court also directed that under no circumstances any evidence should be destroyed by any person and instructed the CBI to collect all evidence including the post-mortem conducted on the victims of the firing.
  • In view of the absolutely volcanic situation created, the court further directed the state government to ensure the safety and well-being of all the general public in the area. The state is also directed to take adequate measure to provide medical facilities to the injured villagers.