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Indian women: Face of hope in Nandigram

Jun 08, 2009

Women had played an active role in protests against conversion of fertile agricultural land into a special economic zone in India’s West Bengal. Two years later it is the women of Nandigram again who are in the forefront of struggle for rebuilding their shattered lives, writes Aditi Bhaduri.

Nandigram: In March 2007, and then again later that year in November, the streets of Kolkata were overflowing with people expressing outrage over the political violence that was unleashed on the hapless inhabitants of Nandigram.

This rural area in Purba Medinipur district of West Bengal had turned into a battleground, with the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist) pitted against the Trinamool Congress-backed Bhoomi Ucched Pratirodh Committee (BUPC), over the conversion of fertile agricultural land into a special economic zone (SEZ).

How did the Nandigram face-off unfold? In December 2006, the CPI (M) government issued a notice of land acquisition for a SEZ. Violent protests by the BUPC followed.

As the situation began spinning out of control, the notification was withdrawn but the carnage continued for another 11 months. It was only after the industries moved out of the region permanently did things begin to simmer down.

Two years later

Today, two years later, people here are still trying to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives. Among them, it's the women who have emerged as the face of hope, thanks to the Matangini Mahila Samiti (MMS), or the Matangini Women's Committee. Set up at the time of the conflict in July 2007, it has been providing moral, legal, and social support to the women here ever since.

The MMS, which draws its name from from Matangini Hazra, a martyr from Nandigram, who had heroically led a procession against the British during the 1942 Quit India Movement, was started by local women like Radharani Ari, Krishna Mondol, Chabi Maity and others along with Kolkata-based activists Deblina Chakaborty and Juita Das.

Many of the local women who joined the MMS had been assaulted, molested or raped during the clashes between the Left cadres and the BUPC activists.

During the first uprising against the SEZ that took place on January 3, 2007, women had led the protests from the front. Radharani Ari explains, "We worked on the land, too. If it had been taken away and monetary compensation given instead, it would have gone to the men. Even the jobs would have been for the men. What would have happened to us? We would have had to beg from the men in our families."

The MMS, which came into being after the first round of violence, initially set out to educate women about the concept of the SEZ, so that the women were aware of what they were up against and the strategies they would need. The Kolkata activists conducted the sessions once a month.

Most MMS members acknowledge that it is these meetings which were responsible for the empowerment evident in Nandigram's women today.

Mobilising against social evils

Not only are they now aware of land rights, women's rights and state-sponsored terror, they have also been able to raise their voices against various social evils with considerable success.

They also keep a close watch on the elected representatives from the area and work on issues like health and education for girls and women, aspects Nandigram is found woefully wanting in.

Take the case of Habiba Bibi of Garchakreberia village. Garchakreberia has a predominantly Muslim population and for years the women here were told that Islam forbade them to mobilise for political reasons.

Once Habiba joined the MMS, she realised that this was just another ploy by the men to control them. So she spoke to the local women to try and make them see things her way.

She argued that God wanted people to speak up against evil and since the forced acquisition of land was not ethical, women could organise and protest without fear. Habiba Bibi's argument was convincing enough, and many women came out of their homes to participate in MMS meetings.

In July 2007, came another breakthrough, when MMS members were successful in shutting down five liquor shops in the villages of Shonachura, Gokulnagar and Garchakraberia.

Recalls Krishna Mondol, an MMS activist, "We realised that alcohol had a terrible impact on our men and it caused a lot of problems for the family. Men who drink often beat up their wives and also squandered all their money on alcohol."

Fight at home front

In November 2007, when the 'harmads' – as CPI (M) political activists are known locally – launched an assault against the local people, the police simply stood by without intervening. It was only when MMS women threatened to take away their weapons did they step in and take control.

However, bringing about a lasting change in attitudes is not easy. Initially, the MMS women faced a lot of opposition from their own families.

Deblina Chakroborty, a Kolkata-based activist, recalls the time when the husband of a member barged in on a monthly gathering because his wife had not served him lunch before coming to the meeting. When he saw the number of women gathered there, however, he quietly went back home.

Mondol also says that once her husband hid her sari so that she would not be able to go out of the house for a meeting. But she was adamant and he relented but only on the condition that she let him accompany her. Mondol instantly agreed. Today her husband, too, is an enthusiastic MMS activist.

Incidentally, while the MMS has been functioning for the last two years, it has no offices or even a formal address. Officially, it has only 30 members.

Meetings are held in villages and the message is spread through word of mouth or a date for the forthcoming meeting is decided at the end of a session.

Local women are free to walk into these monthly meetings and there are many who do so. On average there are at least 30 women present during a meeting.

Path to justice still full of challenges

For now, the MMS wants to help women who are caught in the crossfire so that they can reclaim their lost dignity. In any conflict, women are the soft targets, and the maelstrom in Nandigram was no exception, with many women being injured and sexually assaulted.

Even today, one courageous woman or other comes forward with a horror story from those days.

In 2007, the High Court of Kolkata had ordered the West Bengal government to give a compensation of Rs 200,000 (US$1=Rs 47.14) to victims of rape and sexual assault, but the administration has managed to get a stay on that order. So the path to justice is still full of challenges.

But there are women like Ari, who are determined to fight. This grandmother created waves when she claimed that the 'harmads' had raped her, "It was not easy for me but I came forward because I had nothing to lose," she says.

Ari knows she is not alone in this struggle. "All my village sisters are with me. I have received tremendous help from the MMS. The BUPC has taken up our cause in terms of material compensation, but the MMS continues to give me enormous moral support. They have provided us with a new perspective - they've shown us that women are not helpless instruments to be used by men."

Another victim of the violence is Lakhi Rani Das. Both her husband Pritish and her mother-in-law were badly beaten up and are today confined to bed.

Consequently, the burden of earning a living and providing care has fallen on Lakhi. She helps out in her neighbour's tea stall, earning barely enough to keep the home fires burning. But she always looks forward to MMS meetings. They have become her window to a wider world.

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