Nandigram (West Bengal): Blood-red banners naming "martyrs" and proclaiming "shame on Buddha", walls painted with war cries, trees tied with black and red flags, burnt houses and a broken pathway lead to Nandigram, an ordinary village that turned into an unlikely battleground between communists and local residents protecting their land and livelihood.
Almost three kilometres before entering the main Nandigram area, which lies about 170 km from State capital Kolkata, Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) troopers flank both sides of the road, which then meanders through a busy market that sells everything from shoes to shampoos.
Even though things appear to be in an absolute state of peace, it is hard to get over the eerie feeling that engulfs anyone who crosses over into the vast tracts of land dotted with camouflaged graves.
"People think the guns have fallen silent here, everything looks normal, people going to work, a busy marketplace opening and shutting every day – but all this is apparent," said a visibly shaken 70-year-old Narmada Sheeth, who runs a small tea stall in the market.
"This is the kind of silence that is followed by a storm. People here know that they can be killed, shot, harassed, women molested anytime, yet we are not ready to give up the land," said Sheeth.
She is one of the elderly members of the Bhumi Uchched Pratirodh Committee (BUPC), a group of protestors who are against the acquisition of land here for a proposed special economic zone (SEZ) and chemical hub in eastern India, told IANS.
While narrating the incidents that occurred last year when the CPM allegedly wanted to "recapture the land", Sheeth suddenly stands up and starts beating her chest, wailing the names of those who have died and shouting, "Buddhadeb is a killer! Kill us! Come kill us! Kill me! But we will not give you an inch of our land!"
There are thousands like Sheeth all across Nandigram who put the blame it on the CPM government in West Bengal and its Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee while denying the involvement of any Maoist element in the protests.
"I don't know who did what? But what I know and what the BUPC members tell me is that this was by the 'harmat bahini' (as locals call the CPM cadres)," said a sobbing Rinku Mondol, 24, who is a mother of three and the widow of slain Bharat Mondol.
Bharat Mondol, a BUPC supporter and resident of Sonachura in Nandigram, was shot January 7, 2008. His younger brother Pushpendu Mondol was also shot in March but the family has got a compensation of Rs.500,000 from the government only for the latter.
"The government has given us compensation only for Pushpendu and not for Bharat. In any case, I don't want money, I want my family to earn benefits from the land," said their father Pulin Behari Mondol, a farmer and weaver by profession.
Nandigram, a constellation of villages in West Bengal's east Midnapore district, first saw unrest in January 2007 when the residents protested against selling their land for the chemical hub, which resulted in a massive eruption of violence in the region.
Lives were lost, mostly in the months of January, March and October 2007.
Even though the situation has been slightly better ever since the deployment of the CRPF, Nandigram continues to simmer. The villagers fear every moment that troop withdrawal may again lead to severe unrest.
"And this time it's going to be worse. This time we will also not keep quiet," Amirun, a young BUPC supporter, said standing near a citadel like area, which is now regarded as 'Shahid Mor', a cross-section that has been dedicated to the slain villagers.
The BUPC wants the CRPF to stay there till the panchayat elections, which is scheduled to happen in May 2008. The CRPF, which was deployed there on November 12, 2007, is to be stationed there till February 15, 2008.
"The troopers are a gift of god to me. It's because of them that my family can sleep at night, my children can play now. If they go, I will lose everything, I know those people (CPM men) will come and kill us and burn down my house again," said the mother of 11-year-old Bulu Mir who was injured in October 2007.
The bullet hit the child while he was playing with his friends. Even though Bulu survived he is suffering from serious trauma.
According to official figures, the death toll in Nandigram is 35 but as per BUPC's data, it is about 150, including those who are missing.
After major unrest engulfed Nandigram, Chief Minister Bhattacharjee assured people that there would be no chemical hub and no forceful acquisition of land.
"Who says there will be no chemical hub here? I don't believe in what the government says. Ask them to give it to us in writing and if that does not happen, our protest will continue," averred BUPC president Sheikh Sufiyan.
The West Bengal government, which is the world's longest serving democratically elected communist rule, and the Indonesian conglomerate, Salem Group had agreed upon establishing a hub in Nandigram on July 31, 2006.