Authorities on Thursday lifted a curfew in Calcutta after the Communist government of the Indian state of West Bengal on Wednesday deployed soldiers on to the streets to quash protests against its crackdown on opposition to a planned chemical plant

”We are not sure whether the curfew will be imposed again, but the situation is peaceful now,” said Gautam Mohan Chakraborty, the police chief.

State officials told Reuters that the army had been deployed in six areas of the city, the fourth-largest in India, to quell the violence as protesters hurled stones, set alight cars and buses and blocked traffic in downtown Calcutta.

Over the last fortnight, Communist Party of India (Marxist) members have been accused of beating up villagers, raping women and even murdering villagers in Nandigram, a district with a large Muslim population in which Indonesia’s Salim Group has been planning a 10,000 acre chemicals hub.

West Bengal’s ruling communists, who are allies of the Congress-led coalition government in New Delhi, lost control of Nandigram in March after failing to persuade villagers – 14 of whom were shot dead – to vacate their land to make way for the chemicals complex. As law and order officials retreated, local opposition parties and Maoist rebels moved in to back up the protesting villagers. The area has been a no-go zone for communists and police for the last eight months

The violence has highlighted the difficulties even politically secure and investment-friendly state governments face in promoting Chinese-style industrial development. The left has ruled West Bengal without interruption since 1977.

On November 12, however, CPI(M) workers, some toting AK-47s, returned to Nandigram, killing at least six villagers and taking the death toll so far this year to at least 34. Several women have alleged communist cadres raped them.

The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, a Delhi-based advocacy group, yesterday said that the violence in West Bengal had ”shocked the conscience of the nation”.

”The state government seems to have abdicated responsibility and admits having outsourced law and order to varying party cadres and armed gangs, infiltrated by criminal and other extremist elements,” the CRHI said.

Mounting public anger at the Left’s crackdown has weakened India’s left bloc in its political heartland. This has allowed the Congress-led government to push it for permission to move ahead, albeit cautiously, with the historic nuclear co-operation deal with the US that the Left opposes on ideological grounds.

India is expected soon to open negotiations with the IAEA over a safeguards agreements, a critical stage in the implementation of the deal. The agreement may lapse if it is not completed by the time the Bush administration leaves office next year.

Manmohan Singh, India’s prime minister, on Tuesday termed the violence in West Bengal as ”unfortunate”, reminding the Left that it was ”the duty of the state government to protect people irrespective of their political affiliations”.

The state has seen some of the worst clashes between authorities seeking to secure land for industry and communities sceptical of promises of fair compensation for the loss of their livelihoods and property rights.

In January, protests in West Bengal prompted New Delhi to put on hold new approvals for Special Economic Zones, pending the government’s announcement of a ”progressive and humane” policy for the rehabilitation of displaced people.

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