A 12 member team of WSS visited Bhangar in early March, 2017, and met with affected villagers and concerned officials, in order to understand the origins and impetus behind the massive resistance movement against the power grid project being undertaken by Power Grid Corporation of India (PGCIL). This report is based on our visit to the area, public documents and media reports from the area.
The story of the Bhangar movement starts with the completely arbitrary and opaque manner by which 13 acres of fertile, triple crop land in village Khamarait was acquired for the substation. All processes of land acquisition were handled by Arabul Islam of the TMC, there was no process of consultation with the villagers, and they were even kept in the dark about the purpose of land acquisition. Initially they were made to believe it was for government housing, then that it was some building related to power and only finally, was it clear to them that this structure would also entail putting towers on farms and lands outside of the 13 acre plot as well. The PGCIL’s own guidelines for environment and social impact study as well as for transparent processes for public consultation were violated with impunity .
Even as the villagers continued to voice their concerns about the impact of these High Voltage Transmission Lines on their lives, livelihoods, health and environment, the government dispatched police to the village on 3 Nov 2016, who beat up people including many women and terrorized them by arresting 6 people, and occupied the village for 18 days. Since then, the police have been regularly harassing the local populations to the extent that several families have left their houses and are living with their relatives out of fear of the police.
The situation further worsened on 16th January, when police entered the villages and detained people, and on 17th January 2017, when the police engaged in wanton violence – assaulting people, ransacking shops, destroying homes. Twenty-two people severely injured by police that day, while 23 houses, 4 grocery shops, 4 tea stalls, and 6 other shops were ransacked. Eleven people including 2 juveniles were picked up and badly beaten up. In response, the villagers protested and blockaded the roads, demanding the authorities should conduct a dialogue with the people, release the detained villagers, and withdraw the police encampments from the area. Eventually, after an extended stand-off, the civil and police authorities agreed to meet some of the demands, and the movement leadership called off the blockade. However, in separate instances, the retreating policemen or TMC persons accompanying them fired at the villagers, killing two of them, Alamgir Molla and Mofizul Khan, and injured another, Akbar. Not only did the police and civil authorities go back on their promise of a dialogue with the movement, a week later, two leaders of the movement, Sharmistha Chowdhury (a WSS member) and Pradip Singh Thakur were arrested and charged under the draconian UAPA, of conducting or conspiring to conduct a “terrorist” act. Many others have been either arrested or named as an accused in the approximately 145 FIRs that have been filed against the movement, thus criminalizing a peaceful, popular mass movement. The imposition of UAPA is particularly alarming, as it erases the lines between democratic dissent and terrorist activity, and equates the opposition of government policy to an act of high treason.
While the police show remarkable alacrity in registering and following up on cases against the protestors, scant effort has been to apprehend the killers of Alamgir Molla and Mafizul Khan, or even register the over 100 complaints that the people have filed against the police for assault and loot on 17.1.2018.
The villages in Bhangar continue to be under siege. Every other day, there are raucous, provocative meetings and rallies held in the area by ruling party politicians, at which slogans are shouted against the protesting villagers of Khamarait, Machibhanga, Padmapukur, Tona, Ghazipur etc., bricks and incendiary material are hurled at them, and their huts. The villagers of have blocked the roads entering their village with trunks of trees and chunks of concrete, brick walls, to ensure their safety and security. Even so, they often get injured, and arrested/ detained by the police.
The strength of the movement lies in the remarkable resilience of the people, who had been fighting this battle long before the civil society groups got associated with it. Allegations that the movement is artificially sustained by factional political interests within TMC are disrespectful of the agency of the people and a remarkably vibrant and energetic peoples’ movement. The vibrancy of the movement has drawn all left parties across the spectrum, as well as the Congress Party, to offer solidarity to the movement. There is a bitter irony in the fact that the TMC which rode to power on a popular wave largely due to its support to Singur and Nandigram movements and its opposition to the repression unleashed on these movements, is now resorting to the same repressive tactics against a similar movement.
We call upon the authorities de-escalate the situation by holding immediate and unconditional talks with the protesting villagers and their leaders, and undertake confidence building measures to gain back the trust of the villages. The health and environment concerns raised must be addressed and a transparent and participative
Environment and Social Impact Study must be conducted immediately .
The FIRs under which people have been imprisoned include dozens of other names, including those of many WSS members (Nisha Bishwas, Swapna Bannerjee, Anuradha Talwar, Rangta Munshi, Krishna Bannerjee), and 500-2000 others who are unnamed, which has given the police a virtual license to arrest and harass a large number of villagers. Confidence building measures should include the quashing of such vindictive FIRs. Immediate action must be taken against police personnel and goons involved in the violence. Attempts to paint the legitimate and peaceful protest as unconstitutional or “terrorist” must stop.
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