At the mention of his attempted suicide, Bhaskar Dam’s moustache twitched to suppress a grin. Until then, he had been grumpy, though he had lovingly scratched the ears of the strays who had walked in to escape the blistering April heat outside. He was annoyed at being disturbed in the midst of hectic electioneering at the local Trinamool ward office next door, and asked if the story would be published before the election. “Then I’ll talk, else no,” he said. But at the mention of his headlining suicide attempt, he opened up like a tap.

“When the police came that day to evict us, I was ready to kill myself,” Dam said. “My younger daughter asked me: 'Did you not think about us at all?' I told her: ‘I feel bad telling you this but I don’t know what it is about this piece of land – I have cared for it for more than 40 years and I love this more than anything in the world.’”

In December 2015, Dam became perhaps the best known sports club president in Kolkata when he climbed atop a small platform with a 500ml PET bottle of kerosene and sent back a police contingent led by the city’s police commissioner that had come to vacate the plot of land on which the Youth Club stands in Naktala. The police were acting on a High Court order to return the plot to the original owner, Leena Datta, from whose family the plot had been “requisitioned” 40 years ago by the state government for the purpose of building a pumping station. But Datta moved court saying she had received no rent for the past 43 years, and that the pumping station on her family plot was non-functioning.

Forty three years is approximately the age of the Youth Club. A board outside its reasonably well-maintained ground announces that the club was set up in 1972.

The club offers space for football and cricket on its ground, a badminton court, a gym for men and a twice-a-week Shaolin Kungfu class for girls and boys priced at Rs 200 a month. It is also a low-rent option for weddings, funerals and other social gatherings in the locality – a form of urban commons.

The Calcutta High Court responded sharply to the police inaction in getting the club plot vacated: Justice Jyotirmoy Bhattacharya said he would call on the army to clear the land if the police failed to do so. The state government responded with unsuspected agility: it agreed to pay Rs 6 crore to the owner of the property.

Why would any state government agree to spend Rs 6 crore (perhaps more) on behalf of a club? This largesse, the Kolkata media has accused, reflects Mamata Banerjee’s sly relationship with local clubs. Dam's Youth Club in Naktala seems to follow this analysis like a script.

On the two days Scroll visited, the club bustled with men who came to consult Dam on where to put up flags, where to paint graffiti and other election preparation. Dam fielded phone calls throughout, issuing instructions. His wife Sushmita is the Trinamool councillor in the ward, and her office is adjacent to the club grounds. Dam’s club is the locus of Trinamool activities in the neighbourhood. He himself was dressed in a pista green shirt (green is the Trinamool colour) with the party brooch pinned next to his heart.

Since 2012, Mamata Banerjee's party has made annual cash payments to paara (neighbourhood) clubs. In 2012, she handed out Rs 15.5 crore to such clubs, and in 2015, Rs 150 crore. A total of 7,500 clubs received sums of Rs 2 lakh or one lakh last year. This money is ostensibly for the promotion of sport but going by Dam’s work for the party, this might mean 7,500 extensions of the Trinamool party office. A quick easy way to build party cadres, something the Communist Party of India (Marxist) spent years and years building assiduously, replete with classes on Marx and Engels.

On April 30, the day four of Calcutta's Assembly constituencies went to vote, The Telegraph led with a front page story on clubs reporting that the police had forced paara clubs to stay shut the evening before on the apprehension that these would be used as "staging posts for rigging".

Club culture

Kolkata, particularly the southern part of the city that is more homogeneously Bengali, is dotted with such clubs. But for years, such clubs have been despised by the affluent for squatting on their lands and their perceived interference in neighbourhood issues, a dislike reflected in the reporting in the city’s English-language media and the largest Bengali daily Ananda Bazaar Patrika. Most of these clubs occupy land that was once unused but is nevertheless private property. The Youth Club sits on a 0.7 acre plot. (Incidentally, the city’s posh Tollygunge club stands on land owned by the Ghulam Mohammed Trust, the heirs to which are the impoverished descendants of Tipu Sultan’s family.) These local clubs are also seen as places that lead to drunken brawls and sexual harassment – popularly known as anti-social activities in the press. They often double up as the office space for the local branch of the syndicate, as the network of extortionate building material suppliers in Kolkata is commonly known.

Many of the 7,500 clubs may have emerged in response to Banerjee’s dole but the paara club is an important element in Kolkata’s history. They go back possibly a century and a half to the physical culture associations in Kolkata that came up in the wake of the National Movement. In his book Nation At Play, the academic Ronojoy Bose has described how the British colonial administration’s "denigration" of the Bengali as effete provoked the anxiety for the "masculine body" and led to the establishment of both Western-style athletic sport associations and traditional sport centres such as akharas. One of the greatest moments in the theatre of national movement came with the defeat of the East Yorkshire Regiment by the largely barefoot team of Mohun Bagan Club in July 1911.

These clubs continued to exist, and sprout, post Independence. But aside from sport, they serve as nodes of community. One of the most important functions of paara clubs became offering space for ritual ceremonies such as weddings and funerals, and organising pujos – chiefly the Kali Pujo and Durga Pujo.

As the workings of democracy became clearer post-independence – demographic units organised by geographic location – the club emerged as a vital node for political parties to tap into. In the 1970s, the Congress was known to offer social services through such clubs, this Hindustan Times story notes. The CPI(M) controlled the paara clubs as it did every aspect of life in its heyday.

In the novel Firebird, set in the claustrophobic Calcutta (as it then was called) of the 1980s, novelist Saikat Majumdar suggests the intimate relations between the CPI(M) and the paara club. "The Party he knew. Who didn't?" Majumdar writes.

"Their office stood right next to the football grounds, under the bright painting of the hammer, sickle and the star. The men played football all afternoon and then gathered in the room in the evening to paint banners for strikes and protest marches. Grim older men in shirts and pyjamas broke up fights on the football fields and brawls in the government ration shops."  

But perhaps the Trinamool is the first to institutionalise the relationship in the form of a regular dole.

Sharp strategy

The Trinamool, however, appears to be smarter and subtler than what the media analyses suggest. The party has not, for instance, demanded direct allegiance from all clubs or issued instructions for party duty. The Naktala Naboday Club (founded 1955) is located in the same Tollygunge neighbourhood as the Youth club. Naboday has a larger ground and a two-storeyed building. The second floor of this building has been financed partly with the government dole.

Soon after the suicide drama at the Naktala club, two large banners were found pasted on Naboday’s grounds asking club officials to get in touch with the promoter mentioned. Deb Kumar Das, the club’s secretary, said they approached local Trinamool MLA Arup Biswas for help. “He met us immediately, and assured us that no one would touch the club,” Das said.

The club building was locked on the weekday evening Scroll visited. Das and another member of Naboday opened the doors and carefully turned on one light and two fans. There was none of the election frenzy that attended the Naktala Youth Club, a 10-minute walk away. Inside the large, tube-lit room fluttered charts spelling out the alphabet, and names of birds and vegetables. The club building doubles up as the premises for a government-funded primary school in the morning. There were no political posters of the Trinamool, or otherwise.

The Youth Club had alleged Naboday to be a affiliated to the CPI(M). But Das and other members shook their heads when they heard this. “Some of us may be CPI(M) members,” Das said, “but this is an apolitical club,” he said. (Das is a long-time CPI(M) supporter himself, a young man who plays football in the club said.)

Had the government money come to them with any riders from the Trinamool? “No, no,” Das said, and a row of heads nodded in agreement next to him. “They have never even requested the use of our room or the ground for a meeting. Nor did the CPI(M), but then this government has helped us much more, all the clubs in fact.”

A few seconds later, he added: “What they imply in the news is not right, you know. The government is supporting the common people. I don’t know if we can produce great sportsmen here but at least there is place for young people to play, for common people to have a wedding reception. Not everybody can afford a hotel.”

And this, perhaps, is where Trinamool has played it nicely, scooping up community goodwill without overtly asking for anything in return.