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Battlelines in Nandigram between communities, Suvendu Adhikari vs Mamata Banerjee

The land acquisition agitation of 2007 is old news, Nandigram is now reverberating with the sharp polarisation that marks the bitter Trinamool-BJP battle for Bengal.

Mamata hoardings dominate Nandigram. (Express photo by Partha Paul)

Nandigram in Purbo Medinipur district once catapulted Mamata Banerjee to power. Fourteen years later, Nandigram defines her battle to return to power for the third time. However, therein ends the similarity. The land acquisition agitation of 2007 is old news, Nandigram is now reverberating with the sharp polarisation that marks the bitter Trinamool-BJP battle for Bengal.

Mamata has upped the stakes by declaring her candidature from the seat, thus pitting herself directly against Suvendu Adhikari, one of the BJP’s biggest acquisitions from the Trinamool. Adhikari was not just the face of the Trinamool in Nandigram, he was also the face of the party’s land protest on the ground.

Mamata looms over Nandigram in graffiti, cutouts and hoardings declaring ‘Bangla Nijer Meyeke Chai (Bengal wants her daughter)’. But BJP flags jostle for space. Adding to the crowd is Furfura Sharif cleric Abbas Siddiqui, who has demanded the seat for his party Indian Secular Front in his alliance with the Left and Congress. With a significant proportion of the population in Nandigram Muslim, Siddiqui will further queer Mamata’s pitch.

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At a rally in Hooghly on January 21, Adhikari declared, “They (the Trinamool) is relying on 62,000 votes (in Nandigram), but I have the support of 2.13 lakh people who chant Jai Shri Ram.”

Won by the Trinamool in a 2009 bypoll, Nandigram Assembly seat has since been with the party — Adhikari won in 2016 by 81,230 votes. Before that, it was a Congress and then a CPI stronghold. In 2019, the Tamluk Lok Sabha seat was won by Adhikari’s brother Dibyendu, but the BJP had come second, getting over 60,000 votes in the Nandigram segment. Dibyendu is also with the BJP now.

The Trinamool campaign for the Assembly seat is being run from a two-storey house in Tarachand Bar area of Nandigram Block 1. Sitting in a hall plastered with pictures of Mamata, Trinamool district vice-president Sheikh Sufian says they are not worried. “The BJP is trying to draw communal lines in the Nandigram seat. But they will not be successful. Mamata Banerjee will win overwhelmingly… Suvendu Adhikari has made a political blunder,” Sufian, 60, says, adding that the BJP would struggle to even put up agents in 100 of the 355 polling booths.

Suvendu Adhikari, Trinamool Congress MP from Tamluk. (Express Photo By Partha Paul)

As leader of the Bhumi Ucched Pratirodh Committee (BUPC), Sufian had led the movement against the Left government’s plan for land acquisition for an SEZ in 2007. He says it was the Trinamool chief who had made the world aware of the “plight” of Nandigram and brought development to the region. The last few years have seen concrete roads, proper drains, a super-specialty hospital, a drinking water project, plans for a ferry to Haldia, and a bus terminus come to Nandigram.

About Siddiqui, Sufian says, “Muslims here are not fools, and Siddiqui has no acceptance.”

About 2 km from Sufian’s home, a BUPC comrade, Meghnad Pal, says he now has security with him 24X7, ever since he left the Trinamool for the BJP. Meeting The Indian Express in a room showing CCTV footage of outside — on the condition that his location not be disclosed — the former Nandigram Block 1 president of the BJP says the Trinamool has sent goons after him.

“I have written to the Union Home Minister (Amit Shah) for security cover. In Muslim strongholds like Kendamari, Daudpur, Samsabad, our workers are not allowed to campaign,” Pal, 62, says, warning that Trinamool leaders can expect the same treatment in Hindu areas.

According to Pal, the BJP will do well in Hindu-dominated areas in Nandigram 2 block. “Nandigram 1 has around 34% Muslim voters while Nandigram 2 has just around 10%… The BJP will win by 70,000 votes.” The party is yet to announce its candidate from the seat.

Debangshu Maity, the BJP co-convener for Nandigram, says the region saw huge corruption after the Amphan cyclone in May last year. “Trinamool panchayat leaders usurped money meant for the poor. Do you think people will forget this?”

Both Banerjee and Adhikari were heroes of the Nandigram movement.

About 4 km away, in Gopimohanpur village near Chowringhee, Abu Taher too lives under security, Y-category, provided by the state government. Also part of the BUPC and now the Trinamool district general secretary, Taher says the 2007 agitation was a struggle of the people. “The people of Nandigram lost their near and dear ones. Suvendu Adhikari came later.”

Taher stresses that the BJP’s polarisation tactics won’t work. “Hindus and Muslims celebrate their festivals together in Nandigram. They agitated together in 2007.”

However, it’s hard to escape the tension in the air, especially in the hushed tones in the Muslim-dominated areas. “We are in shock over Suvendu Adhikari joining the BJP. The BJP is a communal party, how can we vote for it?” says Sheikh Taslim, a coconut seller standing at the Debipur School corner, adding that he was glad Mamata had chosen to contest from Nandigram. “She will surely win.”

Sheikh Zulfikar, who does shrimp farming on 35 bighas of leased land in Kendamari, says they loved Adhikari. “Then he joined the BJP and started giving statements against Muslims… Everyone in our village and surrounding areas will vote for Mamata Banerjee. She will get all the Muslim votes as well as votes of women in the houses of BJP supporters,” Zulfiqar, who says his 2007 agitation days are far behind him, asserts.

In Sonachura, Ramen Gosain, a small farmer, says their support is for Adhikari, whatever the party. “Around 2016, the BJP started working here. But still a majority of us were with the Trinamool. But after Suvendu babu joined the BJP, the party is our choice,” Gosain says.

Fellow farmer Haripada Samanta, standing beside Gosain, says the Trinamool has only itself to blame. “After Amphan, Suvendu babu suspended a lot of panchayat members and made some of them return the money they took. After he went to the BJP, those people are back with the Trinamool.”

As one ventures towards Nandigram Block 2, the presence of the BJP gets more marked.

In Berulia market, a two-storey building adorned with pictures of Lord Ram, Ganesha and ‘Bharat Mata’ is the BJP’s oldest office in the area. Party district vice president Pralay Pal, 42, says Adhikari crossover had boosted their confidence. Pal adds, “There are around 62,000 Muslim votes out of a total of around 2.75 lakh. So consolidation will be there… A section of Muslims too will vote for us.”

Sabita Jana admits there is “confusion”. Standing not far from the BJP office, the mother of two whose husband works as a carpenter, says, “On the one hand is Suvendu babu whom we admire, on the other hand is Mamata Banerjee, whom we love too. I am not the only one, many are confused.”

A fruit stall owner at the Chowringhee market in Block 1, who refuses to give his name, says a surprise will be in store on May 2 result day, quite like in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, when the BJP had won 18 seats. “We are quiet now. But when the time comes we will vote for, you know, which party.”

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