The Trinamool Congress should be worried at the turn of events at Bhangar in South 24 Parganas, West Bengal, where a protest has been on for weeks against land acquisition for a power substation. On Tuesday, it turned violent, one person was killed. There are multiple versions of what caused the death of 26-year-old Mafizul Ali Khan. Police have suggested that he may have got a bullet when the protestors fired. Protestors have blamed the death on the police. They also refused to allow senior leaders from the ruling Trinamool Congress to broker peace. Police have also claimed that they are investigating if Maoists had infiltrated the protests. There is an eerie similarity between the events at Bhangar and the violence that followed land-related protests at Nandigram and Singur in the past. Then, too, violence broke out after the state failed to engage protestors in a dialogue. The CPM-led government’s reluctance for timely negotiation was a major factor that turned the protests, initially limited to Nandigram and Singur, into a bloody political battle that eventually led to its fall.
Yet Bhangar is no Nandigram or Singur. First, the dispute is over a small patch of land — 13 acres — and the protestors seem willing to part with it if offered market rates. Second, the legal environment now favours landowners: The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, legislated in 2013 in the aftermath of the Nandigram and Singur protests, makes the consent of landowners mandatory for acquisition, including for public purpose. Third, past protests have radically transformed the political dynamic in West Bengal. The primacy of land rights has been underlined by the assembly poll verdicts of 2011 and 2016; the political cost of ignoring public sentiment over land can be devastating.
What should worry the Mamata government, however, is that street violence has become the preferred mode of protest. All too often in Bengal, public grievance gets channelised as mob violence. Ironically, it was the TMC that deployed this method of protest, where negotiations with the administration are foreclosed. In the long run, this mode of politics causes a breakdown of the state’s authority. West Bengal, saddled with a huge public debt and a troubled agrarian economy, will need to attract investment and industry. That looks difficult if the current destructive streak in politics continues.