The SEZ controversy started when the government of West Bengal decided that the Salim Group of Indonesia would set up a chemical hub under the SEZ policy at Nandigram, a rural area in the district of Purba Medinipur. The villagers took over the administration of the area and all the roads to the villages were cut off. A front-page story in the Kolkata newspaper, The Telegraph, on 4 January 2007 was headlined, "False alarm sparks clash". According to the newspaper that village council meeting at which the alleged land seizure was to be announced was actually a meeting to declare Nandigram a "clean village," that is, a village in which all the households had access to toilet facilities. However, later events indicate that the government had in fact decided to set up the chemical hub and the villagers' concerns were genuine. The administration was directed to break the Bhumi Uchhed Pratirodh Committee's (BUPC) resistance at Nandigram and a massive operation with at least 3,000 policemen along with cadre of the Marxist ruling party was launched on March 14, 2007. However, prior information of the impending action had leaked out to the BUPC who amassed a crowd of roughly 2,000 villagers at the entry points into Nandigram with women and children forming the front ranks. In the resulting mayhem, at least 14 people were killed.
The chemical hub would require the acquisition of over 14,000 acres (57 km²) of land. The special economic zone would be spread over 29 mouzas (villages) of which 27 are in Nandigram.Probodh Panda, a CPI MP from the district has said that most of the land to be acquired is multi crop and would affect over 40,000 people.Expectedly, the prospect of losing land and thereby livelihood raised concerns among the predominantly agricultural populace. The villagers, which included supporters of the party in power, CPI(M), joined hands with other opposition supporters, organized a resistance movement under the banner of the newly formed Bhumi Uchhed Pratirodh Committee or BUPC (literally, Committee for the Resistance to Eviction from Land).
In defence of the project, the state government states that it was won by competing with 9 other Indian states. Being in the vicinity of Haldia Petrochemicals & IOC refinery, which, the CPI(M) claimed, had earlier led to 100,000 jobs being created through downstream projects, the party argued that this is the best place to build a hub from the point of view of supply-chain integration.
The Salim Group sought around 35,000 acres (140 km²) of land for a series of ambitious projects. Apart from the special economic zone (which is a 50:50 joint venture with the West Bengal Industrial Development Corporation) it has been assigned the construction of the 100 km long 100 m wide Eastern Link Expressway and construction of a four-lane road bridge over the Haldi River, from Haldia to Nandigram, has also been planned. The proposed bridge would provide a link between Haldia and the proposed chemicals SEZ in Nandigram. The Barasat-Raichak expressway and the Raichak-Kukrahati bridge, will connect Haldia to National Highway 34.
The decision to award of the expressway to the Salim group has however courted controversy since the preliminary work for the same, including a feasibility studywas contracted out earlier to the renowned JICA. The Agency was kept in the dark about the change in plan until it was announced publicly by the chief minister.
The land acquisition notice was put up on January 3, 2007 by the Haldia Development Authority whose chairman is the local CPI(M) MP. Although the chief minister later verbally dissociated himself from the notice, it was never annulled by another government notification. According to the CPI(M) newspaper, People's Democracy, 18 November 2007, the West Bengal chief minister pointed out that the chemical hub was not to be placed in Nandigram, but at a desolate sandhead at the mouth of the River Ganges called Nayachar. The resulting mobilisation against the proposed hub saw violent takeover by villagers opposed to the project and fearful of loss of owned land. Villagers dug up roads, cut off communication cables and declared Nandigram as a liberated zone from government interference, fearful of land acquisition by the government.
The administration was directed to break the BUPC's resistance at Nandigram and a massive operation with at least 3,000 policemen was launched on March 14, 2007. A group of armed and trained CPI(M) cadres wore police uniforms and joined the forces. However, prior information of the impending action had leaked out to the BUPC who amassed a crowd of roughly 2,000 villagers at the entry points into Nandigram with women and children forming the front ranks. In the police firing, at least 14 people were killed. Immediately following the March 14 killings, voluntary teams of doctors visited the Nandigram health centre, the district hospital at Tamluk and later, the SSKM hospital and compiled a comprehensive report
Few journalists were able to access the area, with their access being restricted by 'checkposts' manned by Communist Party of India (Marxist) party cadres; two belonging to a news channel were briefly abducted.
The scale of the action left the state stunned. Trinamool Congress estimates put the toll at 50. The PWD Minister of the Government of West Bengal, Mr. Kshiti Goswami of the RSP, a Left Front constituent, said 50 bodies were taken to hospital, but it was impossible to ascertain how many were actually dead. In response to this, people singled out as CPI(M) members and supporters and their families were driven out of the area and the houses burnt. A week after the March 14 clashes, The Hindu estimated that around 3500 persons had been displaced into relief camps as a result of threats from BUPC.
The CPI(M) has accused the Jami Raksha Committee - a coalition of activists from various parties who oppose land acquisition - of armed attacks on relief camps which led to three deaths as well as a series of murders and a gangrape.
Fresh violence erupted in Nandigram on 29 April caused the West Bengal Human Rights Commission to step in.. A team of intellectuals and theatre personalities from Calcutta was attacked by CPM cadre on their return trip after disbursing relief material collected from the people in various parts of the state.
The deaths in Nandigram have led to a great deal of controversy on the left in India. The federal police say they have recovered many bullets of a type not used by police but in widespread use in the underworld.
Ramsey Clark, former Attorney General of the United States, described the events in Nandigram as "barbaric and unacceptable". In his statement he compared the CPI(M) led left front government's policy with that of the US administration led by President George Bush , . He visited the area along with the leaders of Socialist Unity Centre of India (SUCI) and called upon all well meaning people to stand up against imperialism in Nandigram and else where .
Dr. Ashok Mitra, long time Finance Minister of the Government of West Bengal (and a veteran CPI(M) leader) criticized the government and his party stating that till death he will remain guilty to his conscience if he keeps mum on the happenings in Nandigram. He states that the CPI(M) leadership is blind of hubris and the party has turned into a wide open field of flatterers and court jesters dominated by ‘anti-socials’ .
An editorial in The Indian Express said that the party machinery has become the "sword arm of an industrialisation policy that involves settling complicated property rights issues.
Renowned novelist Sunil Gangopadhyay, a friend of the Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya also felt that the industry is necessary but state violence was barbaric. Social activist Medha Patkar had visited Nandigram on 7 December 2006 to protest against land acquisition. Other renowned persons who joined protests against the project and the actions carried out on 14 March 2007 to implement it include Magsaysay and Jnanpeeth Award-winning author Mahasweta Devi, Booker Prize-winner Arundhati Roy, film director and actress Aparna Sen, theatre personalities Shaonli Mitra and Bibhas Chakraborty, painter Suvaprasanna, songwriter and singer Kabir Suman and many others.
The CPI(M) has currently adopted the public position that land acquisition will not be made without the consent of the people of Nandigram. The proposed SEZ has ostensibly been shelved following the March 14 police action. The local, district and State administration have however maintained that the Chemical Hub will take place at Nandigram itself. The PWD Minister of the Government of West Bengal, Mr. Kshiti Goswami has also come out against the CPI (M) stating that the CPI (M) is determined to set up the chemical hub at Nandigram, despite all the protests.
The latest drubbing that the Buddhadeb Bhattacharya government's March 14 action received was from the High Court at Kolkata, when, on 16.11.2007, a two-judge bench consisting of The Hon’ble Chief Justice S. S. Nijjar, and the Hon’ble Justice Pinaki Chandra Ghose, declared that "The action of the police department to open fire at Nandigram on 14.03.2007 was wholly unconstitutional and cannot be justified under any provision of the law" and further that "The action of the police cannot be protected or justified on the ground of sovereign immunity." and also that "The action of the police cannot be justified even under the provisions of Criminal Procedure Code; The Police Act, 1861 for The Police Regulations, 1943". The Hon'ble judges also ordered that "we direct the State of West Bengal to pay to the victims of the deceased as a result of the indiscriminating police firing on 14th of March, 2007 immediate compensation in the sum of Rs.5 (five) lakhs each" and further that "We further direct the State Government to pay immediate compensation to the persons who were injured and whose particulars have been given the pleadings sum of Rs. not less than 1 (one) lakh each" and also "We further direct the State Government to pay compensation to the victims of rape who have been duly identified in the pleadings a sum of Rs.2 (two) lakhs each".
Amnesty International expressed serious concern that the Government of West Bengal has not taken the necessary concrete steps to ensure that all persons under its jurisdiction are protected from forced eviction and displacement, and that all those forcibly displaced during the violence are ensured at the very least minimum essential levels of food, shelter, water and sanitation, health care and education, as well as their right to voluntary return or resettlement, and reintegration .
Nationwide protests have resulted from the new offensive. On November 12, 2007, the National Human Rights Commission has issued a notice to the West Bengal Government directing it to submit a factual report on the conditions prevailing in Nandigram. Film director Aparna Sen and Rituporno Ghosh decided to boycott the film festival in Kolkata in protest. Aparna Sen said, "Nandigram has become a slaughter house with blood being shed every day. CPM might be at the helm of affairs but the state still belongs to us."
The Parliament of India decided to discuss Nandigram with urgency, suspending the regular question hour sessions, on 21st November 2007 after two days of complete suspension of the proceedings owing to the heated debates between CPI(M) and opposition party members in both the houses. CPI(M) was alienated in the issue by all the other ruling UPA allies considering the fierce nation wide sentiments against the massacre
In May 2008, fresh violence broke out in Nandigram between supporters of the Bhumi Uchhed Pratirodh Committee, and the CPM activists. Both sides exchanged fire and hurled bombs at each other.
On 5th May, CPI(M) mob striped three woman activists of Bhumi Uchhed Pratirodh Committee when they refused to join a rally organized by CPI(M)., . Owing to wide political and civil protests on the incident the Government of West Bengal ordered a CID probe into the incident.,. CPM leaders denied the allegations, claiming that it was part of a malicious campaign..
Union Information and Broadcasting Minister Priyaranjan Dasmunsi and a section of intellectuals including Aparna Sen from Kolkata, in separate press statements, demanded that panchayat polls, due on 11th May, in the areas falling within the jurisdiction of the Nandigram thana be deferred, for, elections might not be “peaceful and democratic”.