INCENDIARY INDIA: Bomb Blasts Rock Bengal Polls
“Of the 418 candidates vying for the state assembly, 61 are multi-millionaires, 80 have criminal cases against them, including 65 candidates with serious charges on their Criminal History Sheet such as murder and rape… The embedded nature of criminality with the state apparatus has prompted many to call it a ‘Thug-ocracy.’ Thursday’s poll violence lends even more credence to the label.”
CALCUTTA – Amidst a tense atmosphere and record heat, Tahidul Mondal, 38, a polling agent for the opposition CPM party in West Bengal State had braced for trouble as his polling station opened. But when crude bombs exploded outside polling booth No. 173, launching shrapnel into his body, the shock knocked him off his feet. Stunned from the blast, he was slow to get up and flee; it wouldn’t be long before those behind the explosion were swarming him – and stabbing him to death.
The horrific violence came during a relentless an unprecedented heat wave with temperatures soaring above forty degrees Celsius for the 13th consecutive day. It was a crucial point in West Bengal’s five part polling schedule with the fate of 418 candidates in 62 constituencies hanging in the balance. The first two parts had been reasonably calm but with tensions rising along with the mercury, the state became a tinderbox on Thursday.
The major candidates in the latest phase of polling included: Sadhan Pande, former state minister of Consumer Affairs (vying for a record-setting eight consecutive terms), Rabiranjan Chattopadhyay, Sashi Panja, and CPM candidates Anisur Rahaman and Debesh Das. The seats of Congress legislature party leader Mohammad Sohrab, former state party president Somendranath Mitra, and BJP national secretary Rahul Sinha were also in play.
Election Commission (EC) officials have thus far received over 1,500 complaints, including those of violence, gross voter intimidation and overall disruption of the poll process. At least 47 people were arrested in Calcutta, alone, according to police.
The constituencies that went to polls on Thursday included 22 in Murshidabad, 17 in Nadia, 16 in Burdwan districts and 7 in north Calcutta. Thursday’s balloting marked the second and final round of voting in Burdwan, where nine constituencies went to polls on 11 April.
Early on, the ruling Trinamool Congress Party (TMC) was prepared for a contest as the CPM/Left Front alliance joined hands with the state Congress Party in an attempt to defeat the juggernaut of the TMC, which swept the polls in 2011, bringing an end to 33 years of Marxist rule. On their own, each party posed little challenge to the ruling TMC but strategically combined, they could no longer be dismissed out of hand.
Despite being officially opposed to one another, the Left Front and Congress have had a history of being in accord both at the state and federal level at key points since the rule of Indira Gandhi. In fact, when now President and senior Congress Party boss, Pranab Mukherjee who had never won an election stood for the Lok Sabha (lower house) in 2004 in Murshidabad, the CPM didn’t field a candidate against him. This assured him of a win and cemented an on-again-off-again alliance with Congress. In the 1980s, Mukherjee was known as Indira Gandhi’s point man to liaise with the left front in West Bengal. Rumours of suitcases full of cash (tributes from ‘Madam’) being carried off by Marxist Chief Minister, Jyoti Basu’s comrades from Mukherjee’s Calcutta base have become the stuff of legend. The alliance seems to be well-funded this time, too.
Though routed, overall, in 2011, the left had hung on in certain corridors – the northern district of Murshidabad in particular.For nearly four decades, Domkal (a constituency located in Murshidabad) had been un-spotlessly red. The incumbent MLA, elected to five consecutive terms, Anisur Rahman, is a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPM. He held on even during the landslide victory of the TMC in 2011, in which the CPM Chief Minister Buddhadev Bhattacharya suffered a shocking loss in his once secure seat in Jadavpur. And, the district, as a whole, stayed within the grip of the Left Front.
The ‘black hat’ strategy of the incumbent in West Bengal has historically been to keep people at home on Election Day. So, when turn-out proved to be high (79%), both the CPM and TMC got tense in Domkal. The implications of such heavy participation proved difficult to measure: either indicative of a protest vote against the TMC or a run on the sitting CPM MLA. With the result in question, nervous party bosses on both sides ordered supporters to be out in force. In the searing heat, tensions ran high as party workers clashed.
The TMC who had long blamed the CPM for election violence stand accused, this time, of intimidation, assault and murder. Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee had previously called the CPM “Terrorists,” and famously suffered a serious head injury from an attack by CPM goons early in her career. This time, the shoe seems to be on the other foot.
Witnesses said that during a quarrel between TMC and CPM party workers over a woman attempting to jump the poll queue, the discord escalated, becoming physical. And then there was an explosion close to the booth that Mondal was manning. “Tahidul was struck by splinters of a bomb. He tried to run but TMC supporters chased, caught and hacked him to death with a dagger.
“Everything happened in front of police and RAF (Rapid Action Force or Police Commando Unit) officers,” said a voter. “Mondal was our worker and polling agent,” said Domkal MLA Anisur Rahman of the CPM. “The Trinamool Congress knew defeat is inevitable and unleashed terror. We had anticipated this and kept the Election Commission informed but all talk by the EC about the preparedness was of no use.”
Whistle-blower former Indian Police Service officer Nazrul Islam, also contesting from Domkal, accused the Election Commission (EC) of being “intentionally incompetent”.
Anuj Sharma, Director General (law and order) of police for the district, said a case under various sections has been lodged against 20 persons. “According to the complaint, the deceased is a CPM supporter and the accused are workers of the Trinamool Congress. There have been no arrests yet and the matter is being investigated,” he said. CPM MP Muhammad Salim held Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee responsible for this death.
For her part, the CM has denied the allegations that TMC workers were responsible for Mondal’s death.
“They (the opposition and a section of the media) are showing it in a way so as to ensure people don’t vote for Trinamool. We conducted municipal polls, no one was killed. In 2014 also, no one was murdered. The Election Commission is holding the polls now. They should fare well, that is what I will always wish,” Banerjee said at an election rally in North 24 Parganas.
Sharma and the District Administration then appeared to concur with the Chief Minister, saying that in the First Information Report (FIR) the man was not identified a polling agent and that the dead body was placed near a polling booth. This comes despite the eye-witness accounts of his murder at the polling station, and the statement of Mondal’s traumatized elder daughter that, “Trinamool goons hurled bombs,” at her father, killing him.
Mondal, a street-hawker, was the sole income-earner for the family, which consisted of a dependent wife and two dependent daughters (one being a minor). His survivors are understandably shattered, and feel utterly betrayed by the state security apparatus who had been deployed to guard against election disturbances.
The police have been accused by the Mondal family and others of collusion with the ruling party workers. Sherfa Biwi, a voter waiting in the queue, said: “I requested the CPM supporters to flee as they were outnumbered but they did not listen. I had also urged Tahidul to run away. Both police and central force personnel present at the booth remained mute spectators.”
Two other CPM workers, Akhtarul Mondal, 32, and Rintu Mondal, 35, suffered shrapnel wounds from the blasts, and were admitted to Murshidabad Medical College and Hospital in Behrampore town. Whomever was responsible appear to have targeted the CPM supporters, and then managed to recede without hindrance as the smoke cleared.
State Congress leader Adhir Chowdhury quickly laid blame on an “unholy alliance” between the TMC and Border Security Force (BSF) for the death. “Since this is a border area, the BSF, which operates here, is involved with the cattle smuggling racket. They have struck some sort of understanding with the TMC which is why their goons were allowed to escape after killing Tahidul. We have requested the EC to deploy CRPF (Central Reserve Police Force) jawans here instead of BSF. And we have also called for re-poll in certain booths in Domkal which witnessed violence today,” Chowdhury told local TV channels.
The TMC Party’s Domkal candidate, Soumik Hossain, has denied the charges, blaming the death on infighting between the Left Front and Congress. “There is no alliance here. They know they will lose even their deposit in this seat which is why out of frustration they have indulged in violence which led to the killing,” Hossain was quoted as saying to the TV news network 24 Ghanta.
BLASTS AND BLADES KILL THREE IN BURDWAN
While official accounts differ from that of eyewitnesses in the Mondal case, what is clear is that the violence didn’t end with his murder. Four others were attacked during polling in Domkal, and three more people affiliated to the CPM, including another polling agent were killed in post-polling violence that continued through to Friday morning in Burdwan district of West Bengal. Improvised explosive devices (IEDs) were used in the Burdwan attacks.
As bombs went off, the same Modus Operandi in the Domkal violoence was observed: witnesses have claimed that in the immediate aftermath of the blasts, CPM supporters were attacked by TMC supporters with various types of knives and sharp objects. While one died on the spot, two people affiliated to the CPM were rushed to the Burdwan Medical College and Hospital with deep wounds; both succumbed to their fatal injuries by Friday morning.
Despite allegations to the contrary, TMC block president Alok Majhi denied that his party was responsible. Meanwhile, the police have yet to make arrests. “No arrests have been made so far in the case. Two companies of Central Forces have been deployed in the district to prevent the post poll violence,” said Gaurav Sharma, Superintendent of Police, Burdwan District.
ASSAULT, INTIMIDATION AND DIRTY TRICKS
In Kalyani, Professor Shibu Das of Kalna Polytechnic College got his hands broken while deflecting an assault by bamboo batons, allegedly perpetrated by TMC activists while he tried to cast his vote. His wife, Tultuli Das was also attacked while the couple were in line to cast their ballots, reported Kolkata TV.
“Some TMC workers threatened us last night not to step outside during the day of the polling. We still didn’t think it’d come to such a pass. Just as we neared the polling booth, some TMC goons attacked us and tried to hit me on the head with bamboo sticks. I tried to save my head and the blows landed on my hands. Both my hands are broken,” Professor Das told the local TV channel. Das’s wife said she was also pursued (normally women are spared from poll violence).
“They tried to beat me up too but I made a lucky escape,” she said. The couple are yet to file a police complaint, however, fearing more attacks.
Reports of violence were also received from Ketugram district where three people were injured after crude bombs were thrown near a polling booth. Several other home-made bombs were also seized from near a booth at Saguna in Nadia district.
Voters in Chakdaha in Nadia district alleged they were “prevented from voting by Trinamool goons”.
At least four people were injured in Mangalkote of Burdwan with Trinamool’s Siddiqullah Chowdhury accusing the CPM for the attack.
“CPM goons are behind this attack. Four of our party activists have been hospitalized with serious injuries. We demand immediate arrests of all the culprits,” Chowdhury said and threatened protest until his demands were met.
Complaints of voter intimidation, manhandling, and scuffles between rival political activists were also received from several booths in city, including Beliaghta and Entally. A journalist is reportedly among the injured.
Both the CPM and the Congress alleged their polling agents were assaulted and driven out in several booths. Booth-capturing and voter intimidation took place in a number of areas, they said.
TMC leader Anwar Khan from the Cossipore area was arrested after he was caught on camera allegedly speaking to party cadre over his mobile phone, demanding them to “hit the EC (Election Commission) on its face with a shoe” on Thursday morning.
This comes as Senior TMC leader, Rezzak Mollah apologized for making misogynistic statements about actress-turned BJP politician Roopa Ganguly on Thursday after the EC issued a Show Cause notice.
Ganguly, a well-known and popular actress, had portrayed the polyandrous mythological heroine, Draupadi on television for a series based on India’s ancient epic tale, The Mahabharata. Mollah made a statement drawing on this portrayal to imply that Ganguly was promiscuous: “I know the length of the cigarettes she smokes…she is really Draupadi,” he said. Mollah has a history of making inappropriate statements against female politicians, previously criticizing the candidacy of actress Moon Moon Sen for the TMC. He was in the CPM then, and got expelled. He joined the TMC in 2014 but chauvinism runs deep in certain men – and he hasn’t seemed to have changed his biases.
Ganguly promptly declined comment, mentioning that it was, “below my dignity,” to react to such slander as prominent feminists and women’s groups have rallied around her. Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that he would come to her constituency in Howrah to campaign with her.
UNION MINISTER GOES VIGILANTE
Modi’s announcement was nearly outdone by his own Minister, Babul Supriyo in Caclutta, who holds the portfolio of Urban Development and Housing in the Central Government. As though stripped from a scene from one of his movies, the former Bollywood playback singer turned politician allegedly chased a TMC follower for around a kilometer in North Calcutta after claiming the man abused him after he had voted. TMC supporters had heckled him prior to the alleged attack, saying he had come to influence the vote. He held up his inked finger to show he had merely come to exercise his democratic right as a citizen – and not in his capacity as Minister of the Central Government. Supriyo claimed a TMC supporter who was drunk, accosted him and then fled with Supriyo in hot pursuit. He caught the man and handed him over to police who promptly let him go.
Following the incident, TMC supporters, including candidate Smita Bakshi, demonstrated against Supriyo. “If he is a voter, he should have cast his vote and left… What kind of an MP is he? He has beaten up our workers and even heckled our women supporters… He was threatening us while the police watched as mute spectators,” she said.
Former BJP state president Rahul Sinha and Jorasanko candidate arrived at the scene, shortly thereafter, with his supporters. The two groups started to argue and scuffled before police separated them.
A senior police officer said nobody was detained or arrested as the complaint was lodged. “Senior police officers, who were there, intervened and the matter was resolved. But because it involves a central minister we did not want to take any chance and a huge force was sent immediately to the spot,” he added.
A CRITICAL DAY IN A CORRUPTION-RIDDLED STATE
In all as many as 14 million voters are estimated to have voted, Thursday. Of the 418 candidates vying for the state assembly, 61 are multi-millionaires, 80 have criminal cases against them, including 65 candidates with serious charges on their Criminal History Sheet such as murder and rape. Key people in government were implicated in the largest Ponzi scheme in history, namely the Saradha Group chit fund scam in 2013 (such as former minister, Madan Mitra who is contesting his seat from a jail cell while he awaits trial on his role in the scam). But as a recent bribery sting online in mid-March demonstrated, the corruption continued right up until elections were called. The embedded nature of criminality with the state apparatus has prompted many to call the state a ‘thug-ocracy.’ Thursday’s poll violence lends even more credence to the label.
So far, 105 of the state’s total 294 assembly constituencies have been contested on April 4, 11 and 17 in the first two phases. The remaining polls are to be held on the 25th and 30th April and concludes on May 5th.
For more details on developments ahead of Thursday’s polls, see: Election TimeLine