Monday, November 3, 2008

VIOLENCE IN NANDIGRAM :Children in the crossfire

Shoma Chatterji
23 October 2008 - A public agitation in any area inevitably leads to disturbances of routine activities. This can be difficult enough for adults, who must cope with changes to their employment routines, scheduling purchases for their homes, etc. But for children, the uncertainties and resulting losses can be even more harsh, as routines are particularly important to them. In long-draw-out agitations, the negative impacts can be especially severe, cutting off access to schooling, and in the process closing the door on many opportunities in the future.
In the politics surrounding Nandigram, the impact of the events on children has been completely ignored. In view of this, Child Rights and You (CRY), and its dynamic team of seven youth volunteers drawn from Kolkata, Gandhinagar ad Hyderabad, embarked on a unique survey of the children of Nandigram to assess the impact of the disturbances that began there in January 2007, in particular during the three months immediately thereafter. Their report, while motivated by a special concern for the affected children, has tried to be as objective as possible in assessing human rights with special reference to the rights of the child.
This is the first status report of its kind on child victims of the proposed industrialisation of Nandigram, and the resultant displacement caused by forcible land acquisition. Case histories of affected children, and conditions of the schools in the area point out how the rights of the childred have been ignored or violated. The media and the public have focussed constantly on political issues and on human rights violations directly linked to these political issues. Mental health conditions, as well as schooling and living conditions of the children in the aftermath of the violence on March 14 have received far less attention - if any - in the press.
Condition of schools in Nandigram
Schooling in Nandigram has understandably been affected by the disturbances. Classes are not held regularly. Science practicals are held in the open grounds, while policemen occupy the laboratories. Police camped themselves in Gokulnagar High School after March 14, a government-aided school, and the only high school in Nandigram. The situation in this school is the most pathetic of all. The police pollute the environment by cooking their food here, and do not clean up properly afterward, leading to accumulation of garbage. The toilets, which too the police use, are not properly cleaned; this has created a stench making it difficult for the children to sit in the classrooms. There is also a water crisis, as the police use a lot of water for bathing, washing and so on. Letters sent out to the administration including the Chief Minister and the Home Minister asking for the police to be removed were not responded to.
Moreover, the constant presence of the police on the premises and even the sports grounds keep the children in a constant state of fear and tension. The students do not hold any grudge against the policemen, as they understand that the policemen must follow orders but they still find it hard to come to terms with the situation. The policemen try to maintain a friendly relationship with the students, but in vain. Grades of top rankers have declined after the tragedy. A few students were forced to leave Gokulnagar High School because their results in the annual examinations had been below par. They could not study for the examinations. Students from Gangra, one of the worst affected areas, are particularly vulnerable and many of them have stopped attending schools.
Schooling in Nandigram has understandably been affected by the disturbances. Classes are not held regularly. Science practicals are held in the open grounds, while policemen occupy the laboratories.
The student register of Maheshpur High School shows a student-strength of around 770. It is a government-aided school, part of the funds coming from Sarva Siskha Abhiyan. Students can take the Madhyamik (Clss X) board exams from this school. Every year, about 50 students appear for the public exam, said the headmaster (but this could not be verified, as he declined to show the team his register). During the team's visit, a disruptive crowd was present on the premises that refused to budge. The team members spoke to the headmaster, three teachers and some students. The annual school examinations scheduled to begin on March 14 had to be postponed twice as a result of the incidents on that day. Though the headmaster had arranged to announce the postponement in neighbouring villages, many students could not take the exams for fear, nervousness and tension in the entire area.
The children
Bikash Mondal, 10, and his sister Pompa Mondal, 8 studying in Class V and Class III respectively at Sonachura Prathamik Vidyalaya lost their father Bharat Mondal. Bharat is one of the first casualties of the struggle - on the night intervening 6 and 7 January he was killed, allegedly by a group of CPM cadres who also killed Biswajit Maiti, Bhudeb Mondal, Sk. Salim, and Bishnu Maiti. Pompa, who went back to regular school from May, 2007, is so confused that she does not remember whether she has taken her annual examinations or not. When asked about her father's death, she clams up at once and grows tense and quiet.
She did not witness her father's death and was not allowed to see his corpse before his cremation. But his loss seems to have affected her deeply. She has not been able to cope with the shock four months after the tragedy. Each time she thinks of him or hears about him, she chokes up and turns mute. Some incidents between January and February last year have been wiped out from her memory.
Her brother Bikash says that the sound of gunfire and bombings were so disturbing that his family was forced to spend many nights in the open fields. He resumed schooling some time after his father's death. His performance in his exams, he said, was not good because of the terror. (He used the word santrash to speak of terror.) In his opinion, the CPM was responsible for the bombings and the firing adding that these party cadres, and their supporters made no secret of their political affiliations. When asked about his father's death, he began to cry. His father worked as a hired farm labour. The family owns very little land. Even at this tender age, he has begun to worry about providing for his mother, sister and grandmother, now that his father is no more. He wants to study well, he says, adding that though the situation is under control, there is tension in the air.
Shivaprasad Mondal, 16, lives in Gangra and studies at Gokulnagar High School in Class XII. His brother Ramchandra is a leader in the Bhumi Uchchhed Protirodh Committee (BUPC รข€“ Committee for Resistance to Eviction from Homeland) formed on January 5. He was close to a CPM leader Joyshokor Pyke and took shelter in his house during the worst violence. The CPM men alleged that Shivaprasad was informing the BUPC about their actions, as his brother was a BUPC leader. The CPM men followed him around as a strategy to place pressure on his older brother by threatening Shivaprasad. He informed the school's Head Master and Managing Committee but they could not do anything.
He had to take exams by staying at friends' homes close to the school. Months later, he still takes a detour because he is scared of encountering CPM cadres on the direct route through Tekkhali Bagan. He said that of the former batch of around 169 students who cleared the Class XI exams, 50-60 do not attend school any more. Besides, as the police were camping on the school premises, the students are facing space problems and are not able to study properly.
Shivprasad does not support either the BUPC or the CPM. He is caught up in a political fray between two organisations and this is hampering his studies and depriving him of a home. He is forced to move from one friend's house to another's in order to ensure his safety and schooling. He admits that this has taken a toll on his health and his studies. Even today, when tensions have decreased, he is scared to move freely in his own area. This has restricted his movement and his freedom.
Eight-year-old Abhijit Maiti is the kid brother of Biswajit Maiti, 12, who was killed on 7 January. His mother is still in shock over her son's death. The child could not tell us anything about his brother's death, as it had not registered in his mind. He could not understand the questions the team asked him, was very nervous and said that his brother continues to haunt him at night. The shock of his brother's sudden death and the tension in the area has taken a heavy toll on the tender mind of this eight-year-old boy. He has problems understanding things and situations.
Sushanta Pal, 12, is an eyewitness to the sequence of events that took place on 14 March last year, culminating in the police firing on villagers. He has stopped going to his high school in Sonachura after that day. He recalls his parents tell him on the night of 13 March, that the police would try to enter Nandigram the following day. During the Gouranga Pooja, he was right near the ditch on the Nandigram side of the bridge, as he lives near Talpatti Khal. While the pooja was on amidst huge crowds, he saw about 45 cars carrying policemen draw up on the Khejuri side of the bridge. They ordered the crowds to disperse for their own safety. When the crowds paid no heed to the warnings and went on with the pooja, the police fired rubber bullets and teargas into the crowd followed by random firing, injuring many.
He claims to have seen five people die. Along with some of his friends, he ran away from the Tekkhali Bridge. None of them were hurt in the police firing but once the police crossed over from Khejuri into Nandigram they did not spare even the children. He saw the police grab a child from its mother and kill the little one. Till this day, he says cannot bear the bright sun as his eyes begin to burn because of the teargas the police used that day. He left school. He feels mentally disturbed with the incessant noise of bombing and gunfire from Khejuri that takes away his attention from studies. He cannot sleep properly at night. Along with the men in the family, he keeps watch at nights even now.
He has chosen not to attend school anymore firstly because the school authorities refuse to take responsibility if and when any violence takes place; secondly, because he has taken on the responsibility of his five sisters and one brother. He hardly meets his brother who studies in a boarding school in Khejuri because they are scared to cross the bridge. Though he could not prove his claim, he insisted that the policemen were wearing chappals which real police would never do and could recognise some CPM cadres among them in police uniform.
The vocabulary of these children now has words like shilpo (industrialisation), santrash (terror) and proshashon (administration). Six-year-old Mamoni Bai knows the word shilpo, but to her it means displacement and land-grabbing. Proshashon is synonymous with the police and santrash the children understand as something dangerous. Most of these words have negative implications for them.
The CRY team of volunteers - Chiranjib Paul, Nikita Jhunjhunwalla, Oishik Bagchi, Priyanka Mukherjee, Poulomi Saha, Ramanika Nandy, Rohan Saha and Sukanya Bhaumik - were appalled by what they uncovered during the survey. Every rule on child rights has been violated with impunity as if it does not exist. The report, says the team, "is our immediate response addressing the urgency of the situation and the demands that need to be met."
The volunteers have no political affiliations and the survey was solely aimed at detecting violations of the human rights of children in the area. Their report has taken several months to be compiled, but despite this, it is revealing. Moreover, the impact on children is universal and timeless. The scars will remain, the nightmares will continue and the child victims' understanding of industrialisation will have been warped forever by the conflicts in which they and their families have been caught up. ⊕
Shoma Chatterji Dr Shoma Chatterji is a freelance writer based in Kolkata, and a member of NWMI. She is the author of 16 books, including 'Kali - The Goddess of Kolkota' and 'Gender and Conflict'.
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