Widespread violence marked the panchayat elections in West Bengal on May 14. Twenty six people were killed across the state amid widespread accusations that the ruling Trinamool Congress used muscle power to beat its way through the local opposition in many areas.
One of the places that witnessed intense violence was Bhangar-II block in the district of 24 South Parganas, 30 km east of Kolkata. Residents here allege local goons, with allegiance to a leader of the Trinamool Congress, threw bombs, fired in the air, assaulted polling agents and candidates, scared away voters, captured booths and cast bogus votes that day – with the help of the police.
The violence was confined to just one of the 10 gram panchayats in the block – the sole panchayat in which the Trinamool Congress faced a contest. Its opponents were not from the Bharatiya Janata Party or the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the two main opposition parties in the state, but from a local land rights committee.
Bhangar-II block is the site of a Power Grid Corporation of India sub-station as well as a strong resistance movement against it. In Polerhat-II gram panchayat, a local land rights committee had fielded nine independent candidates for the polls. They were the only opponents contesting against the Trinamool Congress in the entire block. Most of them are farmers and daily-wage labourers who were fighting elections for the first time. Their poll nomination papers show that when taken together, their assets are not worth more than a few lakhs of rupees.
The leading Trinamool Congress candidate was Arabul Islam, the outgoing panchayat head and local strongman. He was fighting for a samiti or block-level seat while his son Hakimul Islam was a candidate for a gram panchayat or village-level seat.
Islam was accused of instigating widespread violence in the run-up to polls. On May 11, an election rally backed by the land rights committee came under attack. One person died of bullet injuries. Islam was arrested shortly after. On polling day, he was in police custody, but villagers allege that did not deter his supporters from unleashing violence and rigging the election.
Trinamool Congress leaders did not respond to Scroll.in’s questions on the violence in Polerhat-II gram panchayat. They pointed to an official statement on poll-related violence, which said: “A few isolated incidents have taken place, however, which All India Trinamool Congress neither wanted nor supported.”
But a closer look at the events in Polerhat-II gram panchayat shows the violence on polling day was not a one-off incident, but part of a longer, sustained process that the Trinamool Congress appears to be using to dominate every level of local governance bodies in every part of the state.
Power grid as election issue
The Committee for the Protection of Land, Livelihood, Environment and Ecology, an umbrella organisation of 16 villages that is protesting against the construction of the sub-station, fielded nine independent candidates from the Polerhat-II gram panchayat area in the election. The sub-station comes under the area of this panchayat, and remained a major issue through the election campaign.
“Those of us who are resisting the project are being denied certificates of income, birth and death, and land record documents,” said a bunch of young men standing guard on the road leading to their village on May 15, fearing attacks from Arabul Islam’s men. “We cannot have another five years of such denials and tyranny unleashed by the ruling party. So we decided to put up our own candidates.”
Arabul Islam, who has a slew of criminal cases against him, including murder, is a vocal supporter of the project. He was expelled from the Trinamool Congress for six years in 2013 after being found guilty of inciting violence that had led to two deaths. He was, however, brought back into the party’s fold ahead of the 2016 Assembly elections with much fanfare, and emerged as Mamata Banerjee’s preferred man to execute the contentious sub-station project.
Locals in Bhangar say Arabul Islam’s henchmen have been trying to push the sub-station’s construction through by intimidating and often attacking villagers over the past two years. Government functionaries, including Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee have also tried to discredit the resistance to the project by calling it anti-development and fuelled by “outsiders”.
Arabul Islam is also accused of being behind the May 11 attack on an election rally backed by the land rights committee, in which one person died. Following public pressure and instructions from the chief minister, Arabul Islam was arrested shortly after. The police subsequently unearthed hundreds of crude bombs during a search operation in his backyard.
Mosaref Hossein, secretary of the Committee opposing the project and a resident of Khamarait village, said Arabul Islam’s muscle power had forced many candidates backed by the committee to withdraw from the polls. “Our initial plan was to field candidates for all 16 gram panchayat, three panchayat samiti and one zilla parishad seats from our area,” said Hossein. “But violence during the nomination process changed things.”
Eventually, nine candidates backed by the committee filed their nominations over WhatsApp after the Calcutta High Court intervened. Like in other parts of Bengal, these candidates were prevented from filing their nominations in person because of violence in the area.
Early moves: Attack and hold
Monirul Islam, polling agent for one of the independent candidates, said he was present in Jomadarpukur School on the morning of May 14 when “Arabul’s men attacked us”.
“We had reached the school [that housed polling booths 89 and 90] at around 6 am and were busy completing last-minute election formalities,” he said. “But before polling could begin at 7 am, Arabul’s son Hakimul and his henchmen arrived in several vehicles and started thrashing us.”
Monirul Islam said that he managed to flee but three polling agents were captured by the attackers and one more was severely injured.
Gram panchayat candidate Entajul Khan, who was present in the booth during the attack, says he is lucky to be alive. “I was trying to run away when Arabul’s men captured me and thrashed me before I lost consciousness,” Khan told Scroll.in. “They had probably left thinking I had died, for when I regained consciousness, I saw I was lying at the same spot.” He found that his leg was broken, but he managed to reach a safe haven.
Reporters who had assembled outside the school for spot reporting were also not spared. Several were threatened or assaulted, and at least two vehicles carrying media personnel were attacked on polling day in the area.
Another booth, number 102, was attacked shortly after voting commenced. Soriful Mullick, panchayat samiti candidate contesting against Arabul Islam, said he and his associates reached the booth around 7.15 am to see if things were all right, only to be chased away. “The goons were already inside when we reached, and chased after us immediately,” said the unassuming 22-year old daily wage labourer. “Fortunately, we were on bikes and managed to flee.”
Two more booths – numbers 100 and 101 – located in Kesherait FP School were attacked around 10 am, three hours into voting. Abdul Rahimul, a polling agent for booth number 100, said that polling was going on peacefully when the attackers arrived. “They arrived in six to seven vehicles, heavily armed, and warned voters in queues at the two booths to flee or face the consequences,” said Rahimul. “When some of us [polling agents] tried to oppose them, we were assaulted. We retreated fearing for our lives and the booth went under their control.”
Rigging, aided by police
Several members of the committee said that they called the police following the attacks, but soon realised that some police personnel were complicit in the violence and booth capturing.
Following the violence at the Jomadarpukur school booths, two women who had gone there to vote after the police had arrived and voting had restarted, described what they saw on the condition of anonymity, fearing reprisals. One of them said, “Borobabu [Kashipur police station officer in charge Biswajit Ghosh] was himself inscribing our fingers with ink, and mocking us [saying]: ‘See where Arabul and his men are, and who is casting votes in their favour!’” Ghosh is known to be close to Arabul Islam and they both are often seen together in the area. “We were not even allowed to go near the ballot box,” continued the woman. “Someone else cast our votes, perhaps in favour of Trinamool.” The second woman said that the booth’s presiding officer had retreated to a corner and was watching everything helplessly.
Polling agent Monirul Islam, who had fled from Jomadarpukur School following the attack in the morning, returned later in the day to watch the proceedings from outside. “About 100 policemen were stationed there throughout the day, but we saw very few people go in to cast their votes till 5 pm,” he said. “Perhaps, they were casting bogus votes all day.”
Polling agent Abdul Rahimul, who was outside Kesherait FP School, said the same thing. None of the Committee’s polling agents were present inside these five booths when ballot boxes were sealed at the end of voting, as is required under due process.
Power at any cost
The district magistrate of South 24-Parganas did not respond to several calls, WhatsApp messages and emails from this correspondent. Asked for her comments on the matter, Trinamool Congress MP from West Bengal Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar said she was busy with meetings related to the counting process. Party leader Derek O’Brien pointed this correspondent to the Trinamool Congress’s official statement online.
All five polling booths attacked in Bhangar-II block were located in areas under Arabul Islam’s control, where the movement against the power sub-station does not wield much influence. Additionally, all five booths pertained to seats where the Trinamool Congress was engaged in a one-on-one battle with Committee-backed candidates. The booths would have been crucial to the fate of Arabul Islam and his son.
“In the event of a free and fair vote, 96%-97% people would have voted for our candidates,” said a villager in Machibhanga.
Residents of Machibhanga, Kamarait and Notunhat villages said that all villagers in the area had come together under the umbrella of the land rights Committee to resist the sub-station project and raise questions about it. “This is a fight against the terror spread by Arabul and his gang, and I am contesting because the villagers are all behind me,” said Soriful Mullick, Arabul Islam’s opponent for the panchayat samiti seat.
Entajul Khan, Hakimul Islam’s opponent for the panchayat seat, and some other Committee candidates formally registered complaints against rigging in the State Election Commission’s office in Kolkata on May 15. They demanded a re-poll in the booths that saw violence and alleged rigging. The re-election demand was also raised during a protest rally attended by hundreds in Bhangar on the evening of May 15. But the Election Commission rejected the demand. “It shows how the SEC [State Election Commission] has turned into a stooge of the ruling party,” said Committee member and CPI(ML)-Red Star leader Sharmistha Choudhury, who had accompanied the candidates to the Election Commission’s office. “It has sold out to the Trinamool Congress.”
Red Star is among the few Left parties supporting the local land rights Committee. Choudhury released a statement on behalf of the committee that said: “The ruling party wants to win these five booths at any cost since they are the only means of letting Arabul and his son Hakimul stay on in panchayat bodies and push the [sub-station] project through…We suspect that on counting day our candidates and agents will be similarly kept away from the counting station, and forged results will be declared even for booths where rigging did not take place.”
The votes will be counted on Thursday, May 17.