The memorial stands forlorn in central Kolkata's College Square. Engraved on the plaque is the name of Nurul Islam, a young boy martyred during the 1966 food movement.
This memorial was erected by the Bengal Provincial Students’ Federation, the students’ wing of the Communist Party of India (CPI) and an affiliate of the All India Students’ Federation (AISF). Today, Nurul Islam lies forgotten. Not even CPI members remember the brave boy. Nurul’s aged mother, Achchiya Khatun, and her surviving sons have since migrated to Trinamool Congress (TMC).
Nurul isn’t the only ‘martyr’ who has passed into oblivion in Bengal. Given the frequency of political deaths in the state, it is indeed difficult to keep track.
Mrs Chanda (name changed on request), an active CPI (ML) worker of the early 1970s, talks about dear friend and fellow Naxalite Timirbaran Sinha. Timir lost his life to police beatings at the Behrampore Central Jail in 1971.
His father, a sales representative in a multinational company and a man with some money and influence, managed to get his son's body released for proper cremation, but with quite a bit of difficulty. A lifeless Timir was brought to Kolkata escorted by 16 armoured police vans.
“His father kept saying the same thing over and over again, 'I don't agree with my son's politics. But I had left him in the custody of the police of the country. How could he die? Why could you not save my son?'” remembers Chanda.
“The mother could not accept the fact that her son was gone. She kept telling me that she had not seen his face properly and it was not him. I for one, was sure it was him. Even later, she would ask the same questions and would get excited at any rumour of her son being sighted,” she adds.
She died a few years later leaving her husband behind. Subsequently, he passed away in solitude at an old age home.
“Some parents also developed a justifiable hatred for the movement and the 'cause',” says Chanda. She gives the example of Sanjay Basu Roy, the slain leader of a failed jailbreak attempt. His mother refused to recognise his comrades or even talk to them. The survivors of the incident, including Sanjay's wife Rajyashree, regularly wrote to her from jail. The letters were later compiled in a book Jail Theke Maake (Letters to Mom from Jail).
Refusing to take cognisance of the book, she said, “You are going to live, have families and grow up. It is just my son who is never coming back.” She also refused to attend the memorial meet held in his honour.
The level of political volatility has since, declined but the deaths still continue. In Nandigram, the theatre of the ghastliest mass killings in recent times, the protests and resultant deaths were not for some lofty political ideal, but for basic sustenance.
Tapashi Das, who was shot through her hip on March 14, 2007, says: “We do not have our own land. We were fighting for the protection of the scrap of land we live on, this house and the small pond behind. We will suffocate and die in the slums of the city. If this gets taken, where will we live?”
On the day of the firing, Tapasi and hundreds of others had assembled on a field in Nandigram, dug up the narrow road into the village, placed the village deities on a bamboo platform and were singing devotional songs. The village had been bombarded for the past few days by Harmad forces (a combination of CPM cadre and police) from nearby Khejuri.
The Bhumi Uchched Protirodh Committee, who were leading the protests, had been informed that the Harmad forces would try to enter the village that day and hence this peaceful protest was lodged.
Teargas shells were lobbed into the crowd followed by firing. Tapasi says: “Even powdered chilli is much better than teargas. I was crying for water when I suddenly realised that I could not move anymore, I was hit. I do not remember much after that.”
Tapasi had to spend six months in Kolkata's SSKM Hospital. Apart from help with her medical bills, Tapasi says she has received very little from the government.
Yet, she is probably better off than ex-Subedar Major Aditya Bera. Something of a local leader, Bera went missing during the renewed violence of November 10. Locals are sure he was killed though his body is yet to be discovered. A CBI probe into his disappearance led to CPM leader Lakshman Chandra Seth being charged.
His wife is, however, adamant that her husband is merely missing. She still wears vermilion in her hair and the red and white conch shell bangles that mark out a Bengali married woman. They have been given Rs 3 lakh in compensation.
Has his wife accepted it? Bera's daughter-in-law smiles sadly and says, “Is it ever possible to accept these things? She does not listen to news about him. She was very happy the day Lakshman Seth was produced in court. But she has not accepted that her husband is gone.”
However, regarding the CPM men still on the run, the locals have a rustic logic. They say, “These men should come back home. They cannot live like this for ever. Yes if they come back, we will beat them up. But we are not animals. We will not kill them. We will go back to the way we used to live before all this happened.”
Was the movement worth the pain? “Yes, I have saved my home but lost a lot more. I cannot work anymore. Most days, I cannot even get up. How will my family survive? If things go on like this, I will have to drink a bottle of pesticide. Maybe that will bring peace,” says Tapasi.
Salil Das Adhikari, also injured during the violence, has a more sedate answer, “TMC is now in power. So for the time being, they will not take our land. But who knows what will happen if this government does not return for another term. Will we get shot once again? Will our land be taken away again? We do not know.”
Asked if they are happy with the new government, all of them have the same thing to say. “We had expected a lot from Didi (Mamata Banerjee). She did not look after us. She did not look after the welfare of the people of Nandigram.”
Indeed, Mamata, since coming to power, has not found time to visit the place that changed her political fortunes.
Protima Dutta, another political widow and member of the Bali panchayat, breathes fire. Her husband, slain TMC leader Tapan Dutta, was an environmentalist who tried to do stop two ponds from being filled with ash by the Anmol South City Project. He was bumped off, allegedly by the land mafia on May 6, 2011. Eight bullets were found in his body and 17 more nearby.
Speaking of her precarious life, she says, “Since the incident, I have been provided one bodyguard and two policemen. On July 3, when I had a case in the Howrah Court, the latter suddenly disappeared. Ramesh Mahato and Subhas Bhowmick, known anti-socials, were present in the court just to identify me.”
She rues that she has received no support from the party. “We were inspired to join politics by Didi. I have written a letter to her telling her of my plight and requesting to meet her. There has been no reply so far. The passion with which I had joined TMC has all but gone now.”
Yet her quest for justice continues. The state Environment Department has given her a cheque of Rs 100,000. She says, “The whole money has been kept intact. While I realise Dr Sudarshan Ghosh Dastidar (minister-in-charge, department of environment) is trying to help, I will return the complete sum if justice is not served.” Bengal’s contemporary political history is certainly not on Protima’s side.