Bengal anti-land grab agitation: Two dead in alleged police firing on protesters

West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee proposed to relocate the power project if required. Photograph:( AFP )

WION Bhangar, West Bengal, India Jan 17, 2017, 10.20 AM (IST) Pooja Mehta

Two persons died and another was critically injured on Tuesday in alleged police firing on protesters agitating over the acquisition of their land for a power project in India's eastern state of West Bengal.

One of those with bullet injuries, Mofizul Ali Khan, was rushed to SSKM Hospital in state capital Kolkata where he later died. Of the other two who were admitted in RG Kar hospital in Kolkata, Alam, also later succumbed to his injuries while the other patient continues to be critical.

The state's chief minister Mamata Banerjee, who earlier assured agitating protesters that their land would not be acquired for a power project, later retracted her statement which was deleted from Twitter where it had been posted.

A land acquisition drive for a power project in the Bhangar division in Bengal’s South 24 Parganas district at the behest of a strongman of the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) party had culminated in violent clashes between protesting villagers and the police. 

Villagers alleged police excesses and claim that the police opened fire on them today and also went on a rampage and barged into their houses, ransacking them last night. The police maintained that it was the other way round and that a few police officers were also injured in the incident. 

The police also said they had restricted themselves to the use of rubber bullets, a non-lethal weapon.

“We restricted ourselves to the use of tear gas shells and rubber bullets. These are non-lethal weapons, which cannot result in any injury or death,” a senior police official, who refused to be named told WION.

The protests were over the acquisition of 13 acres of farmers' land in Bhangar by a local TMC leader for a power project of the Power Grid Corporation of India Limited, an enterprise of the federal government. 

The Power Grid Corporation of India Limited has been informed that the work at the Bhangar unit will remain permanently suspended, sources in the state administration told WION.

In a statement, posted on her party's official Twitter account, Mamata Banerjee earlier said the proposed power grid would be relocated if required.

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Protestors set ablaze two police vehicles and vandalised six others.Tension still prevails in the area. 

Sources at the West Bengal state secretariat, Nabanna, said a huge contingent of Kolkata Police force will be rushed at night to Bhangor to identify "outsiders", who are reportedly spearheading the agitation. 

Bhangar witnessed large scale violence and battles with the district police throughout the day, shaking up the entire administration and police force. Villagers were spotted pelting stones and wooden sticks at the police who, in turn, fired tear-gas shells and rubber bullets to disperse agitating protestors. 

The fierce resistance took place despite the government’s assertion that work on the power grid substation will remain suspended. 

Trinamool Congress strongman from Bhangar, Arabul Islam, had reportedly acquired the land in 2013 for setting up a 440/220KV substation to transmit power between West Bengal and Purnea in the neighbouring state of Bihar. 

Farmers and villagers led by Kalu Sheikh have been protesting ever since, demanding that work on the substation be suspended and land be returned to them. 

Bhangar has been on the boil on several occasions. However, the movement gained momentum over the last week when work on the substation was almost over and it was on the verge of getting functional. 

The movement took a fierce turn last night, when Kalu Sheikh was allegedly picked up by police. Villagers of Machhidanga hit the streets demanding his immediate release. Within hours of witnessing clashes, Kalu Sheikh was released by the police after pressure mounted on them, according to the villagers.

The state administration has rushed two of its senior leaders, Abdur Rezzak Mollah and Mukul Roy to bring the situation under control. 

The police have cordoned off the entire area in and around the main gate of the power grid substation and deployed the Rapid Action Force and a huge contingent of combat force. 

The movement for the closure of the substation continues to gain momentum. The state power minister, Sovandeb Chattopadhyay, said, "Work has been suspended. Why is the agitation on? We have agreed to their demand. I will have a dialogue with them.”

Ironically, the TMC was the party which spearheaded the protests over land acquisition for industrial purposes in West Bengal's Nandigram and Singur.

Many see a resemblance between the protests in Bhangar with the Nandigram movement of 2007. 

The way the villagers blocked roads with uprooted trees to prevent police from entering the villages, the way they surrounded police from three sides and pelted stones at them in an organised manner, reminded many of the Nandigram movement. 

Observers close to the ruling party claim that this movement has been ‘hijacked’ and is not led by villagers. Some even see a Maoist hand behind it.

(WION)