Indian Politician Is ‘Didi’ to Female Survivors

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Firoza Bibi with her husband

NANDIGRAM, India (WOMENSENEWS)–In this fertile area of rural villages in the corner of West Bengal, in the eastern part of India, history was made in 2007 when the local people staged a bloody resistance to a corporate land acquisition and won.

Earlier this year, the area made history again when Firoza Bibi, a semi-literate village woman in her late fifties, ran for her region’s seat in the West Bengal Legislative Assembly. She scored a notable victory for the Trinamool, or "Grassroots" Congress, the state’s main opposition party.

As the mother of a "martyr" of the violence, she campaigned door-to-door and in January easily outpolled her nearest rival–93,022 votes to 53,473–and broke the longstanding political control of the ruling Left Front.

With the exception of a five-year period, from 1992 to 1997, Nandigram for three decades had been controlled by the Left Front, a coalition group that in this region has been backing a policy of industrial development that sometimes involves acquiring agricultural land for industry.

But the party’s participation in the 2007 violent crackdown on resisting villagers cost it vital support. When the area’s seat in the state legislature became vacant following the resignation of a ruling-party politician facing corruption charges, Firoza Bibi wrested party control.

But now the difficult part of making a dent on policy in Kolkata has begun.

‘Justice for My People’

"I need justice for my people and jobs," Firoza said shortly after her victory, in an interview in one of the mud-walled rooms of her son’s work chamber. "Many of our men, who do not own land or engage in farming, usually engage in sewing works and move to other towns. I want enough sewing and embroidery industry here so that there is no need for men to leave this village."

Firoza Bibi is also focused on her constituency’s need for development. The local population, of about 439,077 needs electricity, schools, hospitals and better roads.

But one of her most pressing concerns are village women who barely survived the 2007 violence and have not yet received any government restitution for what they suffered.

"They have reposed their trust in me. I am their Didi (elder sister) and I cannot let them down," she said in an interview shortly after her election.

One of Firoza Bibi’s "sisters" is Radharani, a resident of the village of Gokulnagar, part of the Nandigram area. She met with Women’s eNews in the neighboring village of Shonachura in February. She didn’t want to meet in her own village out of fear that someone there–belonging to factions associated with the attacks–might not like to see her speaking with a journalist.  Women living in Nandigram

She displayed scratch marks that she said still hadn’t gone away and were left by men who accosted her, dragged her body away into the woods and raped her. Her case was documented by local media and human rights activists.

"I woke up to find myself injured, my husband had found me and brought me back unconscious," she said. "The humiliation will never leave me. I have to live with it day and night, and I was a respectable housewife with a husband and children and grandchildren."

She spoke in a hoarse whisper, looking down at her lap. She added that a portion of her house, which her family has since repaired, had also been burned down.

Incendiary Announcement

The 2007 violence began when village authorities announced that the government was going to acquire land for a foreign Indonesia-based company and that the longstanding local population would have to vacate it.

Aware of similar recent episodes in India’s countryside, many Nandigram villagers feared for their futures. "We had no idea what we would get in return," Firoza Bibi said.

Some Nandigram residents organized and mounted what has become a legendary chapter in the struggle by indigenous people here to hold their land.

As has been widely reported, on January 3, 2007, about 15,000 people assembled at the village governing office to protest. Police opened fire and injured many protesters. Three days later, over 50,000 people got together and formed the Land Acquisition Resistance Committee. The next day, state authorities fired into a crowd of protesters, killing three people.

On March 14, when police tried to enter the village, many women and children faced them, forming a human shield around the village to prevent the police from entering it. Beatings, shootings, sexual molestations and rapes followed, villagers later testified, blaming political party activists and police.

Fourteen people died from police gunfire — one of them was Firoza Bibi’s 18-year-old son. That loss, she said, deepened her dedication to the cause of defending the land and local people.

Violence returned in November 2007, when villagers organized a peace march. Factions of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) entered the region to recapture lost ground and women were again assaulted.

The sexual violence was a particularly potent issue at the May 2007 People’s Tribunal held in both Nandigram and Kolkata. The tribunal included prominent Indian jurist, social activists, and psychiatrists.

More than 3,000 survivors of the violence filed law suits in the state’s High Court in Kolkata, which recommended in November of 2007 that West Bengal pay restitution of about $10,000 to the families of those killed on March 14, 2007.

It recommended paying about $4,000 for those who had been raped or sexually assaulted; about $2,000 for those otherwise injured.

Families of those dead that have been identified have been paid.

Appeal Stalls Other Awards

But those who were raped or injured have not received any compensation, as the proceedings have been stalled by the state government’s appeal to the Indian Supreme Court.

"I want to get the compensation for those who have not received it," Firoza told Women’s eNews, "especially the women who have been so badly tortured and humiliated."

But for now, many female survivors in Nandigram are waiting for help.

One of them, Krishna Paramanik, in her mid-30s, also agreed to meet for an interview in Shonachura. "It’s difficult to continue to live like this," she said dully, without making eye contact, last February. "My head still hurts. They hit me so hard and pulled me by the hair. My abdomen, my thighs still hurt. There’s a burning sensation in my urethra every time I visit the toilet."

Paramanik said she too was dragged into the woods by men she later identified to local civil rights activists and was molested. "I had a small shop which sold hay and fodder. They broke it down and now I have nothing. My husband makes a meagre living by catching fish in the ponds and selling them."

She said she needs medicines but has no money to get them.

Another survivor, Hoimoboti Haldar, nearing 60 years, showed bullet marks and stitches in her stomach.

She said that on March 14, 2007, she was wounded by rubber bullets fired by the police. The tear gas she inhaled then still hurts her eyes. "My head aches and towards evening my vision dims. I can now see only in bright sunlight." She said she needs treatment but can’t afford it.

Aditi Bhaduri is a gender consultant and a journalist based in Kolkata and New Delhi.

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