The Revolutionary Road to Singur

Politics

The Revolutionary Road to Singur

Illustration: Akshita Monga

I

t was the scalding summer of 2006.

The sky was clear and the sun was blazing overhead. Amiya Dhara was pulling out weeds on his paddy field in Gopalnagar village near Singur, 65 kilometres from Kolkata. The summer days stretched longer for Dhara – a dark middle-aged man with a protruding belly and wiry arms – and the other farmers, as they waited eagerly for the monsoon while toiling alone on their lands. But that fateful morning, the lonesome farmers of Gopalnagar had visitors – officers clad in formal clothes.

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Sarkari babus thronged the village only ahead of polls or a political rally. This unfamiliar sight made Dhara curious, but he didn’t think much of it and went back to the weeds. Soon the curiosity turned to anxiety, as he noticed the men surveying his farm and the surrounding land with immense scrutiny.

The other farmers were as curious, but as clueless. They asked around and a villager who had just returned from Kolkata whispered that Tata Motors had announced that it would set up a factory in Singur for its Nano car. The land of the farmers would be taken over by the government. Dhara refused to believe this. It seemed implausible.

But it was true. On one gloomy May morning, the farmers of Singur were rendered landless by a colonial law that they didn’t even know existed

***

The Land Acquisition and the Right to Resettlement and Rehabilitation Act, 1894, legitimised arbitrary expropriation of land by the state. Much like other British laws, it was put in place to allow the colonial rulers to take over the land of their subjects without question. And the Left government didn’t hesitate to use it to its advantage.

Between the period of 1950 and 2015, a total of 1,369 land-acquisition disputes were presented to the Supreme Court, the two biggest issues being compensation for the land acquired, and the procedure by which the government had acquired the land, either for itself or for a private company. And on several occasions, the government emerged the winner. In the mid-1990s, hundred of farmers from Bellary in Karnataka gave up land that belonged to their ancestors for an industrial zone proposed by the Karnataka Industrial Areas Development Board. They didn’t resist the acquisition and in no time, their land was acquired and all their records were seized.

The callow farmers in Singur thought they would meet the same fate. How could they fight the mighty Left government? Where would they begin? In Dhara’s village of Gopalnagar, a majority, nearly 3,400 families, wanted to silently take the blood money and disappear into the sunset, but there were a handful others who didn’t want to take the path of least resistance. They wanted to fight for what was rightfully theirs.

Dhara may not realise but he has played his part, however minuscule, to get to a historic verdict, which has put an official stamp on the rights of farmers to their lands all across India.

The band of rebels was small, but they soon gained notoriety. From nameless, unknown farmers living their small, peaceful lives, they became the centre of attention – the dissenters. From government officials to police officers, from district administrators to the media, they were haunted by one and all. The mornings would begin with government babus desperately trying to convince them to give up the land and accept compensation, the evenings would end with burly police officers knocking on their doors and threatening them. Even the women were not spared. Often the police attacked the women; the officers dragged them out of their homes, beat them up.

But more brutal than the threats was the reputation they were acquiring. Dhara’s tribe had grown to 2,600 families and they found themselves under the harsh media glare. They were branded “anti-development” protesters, who were being selfish and myopic – they didn’t see the greater good. Most of the people pointing fingers at the dissidents were those who had meekly pocketed the compensation. Dhara realised that the bigger fight was not against political sharks and business bigwigs, but against his fellow farmers.

Familial bonds and old friendships were broken. Neighbours turned sworn enemies as many crossed over to the “pro-development” side. While the protesters and their families went to bed hungry, the lifestyle of those who gave in improved dramatically overnight. Many abandoned the village and moved to cities; there were a few others who built bigger houses, and some purchased cars.

In stark contrast, Dhara and other fighting farmers took up odd jobs in adjoining districts – many had to leave their families behind and work as farm labourers far away from Singur. And there were others who travelled to Kolkata every day, in search of menial jobs that would earn them their daily bread. Schools became unaffordable and thus their children were denied education. The temptation to give in at this point was palpable. But Dhara urged the rebels to stand strong, even as the government swooped down and took their lands anyway. Now they had no land and no compensation.

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The farmers of Singur were branded “anti-development” protesters.

Tauseef Mustafa/AFP/Getty Images

Mamata Banerjee, then an Opposition leader, got involved in their fight, just when all hope was lost. The belief of Dhara and his followers was strengthened further as she made land acquisition her mandate. Didi started the agitation with what appeared like an innocuous gesture of planting paddy near a farm at the Nano factory site. What followed was a wave of protests that shook the 34-year-old Left regime. As she staged a hunger strike for 26 days in Kolkata to protest against the acquisition, she received unprecedented support from activists and intellectuals. She challenged the then government in a rally to acquire even an inch of land “without creating a river of blood”.

Dhara breathed a sigh of relief. Their small protest had become a revolution.

***

The victory of Dhara and his people didn’t come at one fell swoop. First came the suspension of the Nano project, then the Singur Land Rehabilitation and Development Bill in 2011, and finally in 2016, ten long years after that ominous May afternoon, the Supreme Court ordered the land to be returned to the farmers within 12 weeks.

The decade-long fight changed Dhara. It has propelled him from a habitual protester to a prominent leader of the gram panchayat, but it also made him age faster. His hair has started to grey and his eyes look tired. However, the troubles are behind him.

Dhara may not realise but he has played his part, however minuscule, to get to a historic verdict, which has put an official stamp on the rights of farmers to their lands all across India. This verdict is a landmark one, as it upholds the rights of the farmers to their lands and can be used as a precedent in any legal battle arising out of land acquisitions. It has sent out a strong signal that “no government can escape a wrong land deal”.

But Dhara did not set out to change the world. All he wanted was to go back to his paddy field. And even has he awaits compensation, he has started prepping himself to till his land again.

“We simply can’t wait to set foot on our farmland,” he says, his eyes welling up.

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