Kolkata: Giridhari Bagdi, the president of Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha, the youth wing of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), for Labpur ‘A’ mandal committee in Birbhum district, has been living in hiding, in an undisclosed location outside Birbhum, since May 2, when the results of the assembly elections were announced.
A fortnight ago, he took up a job as a mason, after realising that he is in no situation to return to his village, Hatia in Labpur assembly area, anytime soon. He had a shop adjacent to his house for photocopy, printing and photography, which he alleged has been destroyed.
“My shop was ransacked and all the computers destroyed on the very day the results were announced. After hearing the news, I did not return and also asked my father to move out. My father lived with my sister’s in-laws for about a month and returned on June 5. But my life will be at risk if I return. So, I have taken up a mason’s job to sustain myself,” he told The Wire over phone.
Bagdi is one of several hundred grassroots-level organisers of the BJP who are compelled to stay away from their houses, some living at their relatives’ houses in distant areas, and others in BJP’s offices at various districts.
The issue of opposition party workers displaced by political violence perpetrated allegedly by the supporters of the ruling party, Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC), has remained one of the major talking points ever since Banerjee returned to power for a third consecutive term, despite a high-voltage campaign led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union home minister Amit Shah calling for the toppling of the TMC government.
Since May 2, governor Jagdeep Dhankhar has been taking regular digs at the state government alleging the break down of the law and order situation in the context of the plight of opposition party workers. The Union government had sent teams to look into the allegations made mostly by BJP’s local leaders, senior BJP leaders of the national level has made repeated jibes at the chief minister for the alleged lack of democratic space under her rule. The Calcutta high court has passed several directions to ensure the return of people displaced by political violence or intimidation.
While workers of the Left parties and the Indian Secular Front, too, have alleged that they have faced violence, it’s mostly the workers of the BJP who have borne the brunt.
Speaking to leaders from opposition parties of various districts, it appears that most incidents of attack on houses or shops had taken place between May 2 and 6 and since then it is mostly intimidation and manhandling that the opposition leaders are accusing the TMC of.
But nothing assures Bagdi. “If I return, I will either get killed by TMC’s men or the police will implicate me in false cases,” he said.
Birbhum, according to the state’s BJP leaders, has been hit worst by political violence. Over the past few years, the district has become synonymous with Anubrata Mandal, the TMC’s district unit president who has earned a reputation of being a loudmouth and quite a record of publicly issuing threats to political opponents.
A vortex of violence
If Labpur has been the centre of TMC-BJP clashes for the past few years, then Hatia is an epicentre.
On March 18, bombs rained as supporters clashed. This happened after a few bombs were hurled at the residence of TMC panchayat member Biswajit Saha. Police finally arrested six persons from either side, but smaller clashes continued. Even on the day before the polls, several bags full of crude bombs were recovered from this village.
According to Bagdi, around 100 BJP workers and supporters from Hatia village fled their homes, some with their families, in the first few days after the election results. Of them, 70 to 80 workers and their families had returned, he said, adding that this was made possible only after the workers “surrendered before the TMC.”
Around 25 workers and their family members from the village are still living outside, he said.
Whether they ‘surrendered’ remains debatable but it is a fact that several hundred BJP workers and supporters have joined the TMC in Labpur since the election results.
In BJP’s organisational structure, two mandal committees – Labpur ‘A’ and ‘B’ – look after the Labpur assembly segment. The president of Labpur ‘A’ unit, Bikash Acharya, joined the TMC on June 4 along with about 500 workers and supporters, in the presence of the TMC’s Labpur MLA, Abhijit Sinha.
After the joining, Acharya cited two reasons. The BJP did not evaluate his hard work and that there was no scope for serving the people while being with the BJP.
But the BJP’s Birbhum district unit president, Dhruba Saha, alleged political pressure. “Acharya has been a good organiser. It is unfortunate that the TMC forced him to quit the party so that he could stay in his area,” Saha said.
On June 8, Labpur stood witness to a unique scene: a group of BJP workers riding e-rickshaws tendered a public apology, using microphones, for spreading misinformation against TMC before the election. They all wanted to join the TMC and were making the appeal publicly at a market at Bipratikuri village. They were heard saying: “We created tension in the area and grounds for trouble with our misinformation campaign…we promise never to indulge in such acts.”
A notorious place
Labpur’s neighbouring constituency is Nanoor, a place that earned notoriety for political violence in the late 1990s, and especially after the mass murder of 11 agriculture workers, allegedly by CPI(M) workers in July 2000. This dubious distinction continues to linger two decades later.
According to BJP leaders, several hundred party workers and supporters from Nanoor were still staying out of their homes.
One of them is Khokan Das, who was election agent of the BJP’s Nanoor candidate. He fled home on the day of the election results, lived for a few days at a party office and is at present at another office of the party at Suri, the district headquarter of Birbhum. About 100 BJP workers from Nanoor, Labpur and Mayureshwar are living in this office as on June 7.
Das is a resident of Singhee (also spelt as Singi) village that has been on the boil for the past few months. On March 2, the police recovered 25 crude bombs from the village. On April 6, bombs rained through the evening. TMC’s booth unit president Sheikh Fakir’s son, Bapan, was attacked with knives, allegedly by BJP workers who had also reportedly forced him to chant ‘Jai Shri Ram.’
Clashes broke out on April 11, this time over party flags. On April 29, poll day, BJP’s Das’s car was attacked and he was manhandled, allegedly by TMC workers.
“On the day of the results, I was still at the counting Centre when I heard that my house was attacked,” said Das, “By that time, the TMC’s landslide victory had become evident. I didn’t take the risk of returning home and also asked my family members to leave. My family returned on June 2 but I can’t go back right now,” Das said.
Das said his family runs shops that sell grocery, garments and shoes at the village. All three shops were vandalised and looted, the water supply pipelines to their home were disconnected and the submersible pump destroyed, he said.
He said many BJP workers who have returned home, were able to only after “surrendering before the TMC or after paying hefty ‘fines’.
The BJP’s Scheduled Tribe (ST) morcha’s state unit secretary, Sukal Mardi, a resident of Uparkhara village in Nanoor, has been staying at a relative’s place in Dumka district in the neighbouring state of Jharkhand since the election results. Speaking over phone, he shared similar experiences.
“A majority of our workers and supporters displaced by political violence and intimidation returned only after quitting the BJP,” he alleged.
In the first week of June, members of 75 families returned to their homes at the initiative of the TMC’s Nanoor MLA, with members promptly joining the TMC, and blaming the BJP leadership of not standing by them.
The Nanoor MLA Bidhan Chandra Majhi denied any kind of intimidation. “We didn’t drive anyone away. But the BJP workers who had been intimidating our supporters over the past few months felt scared after the election results and left the area by themselves. Now they have admitted their mistake and expressed their willingness to live a peaceful life. We are more than happy to welcome that,” he said.
The BJP’s Birbhum district unit leader Dilip Ghosh, who visited the police stations at Nanoor and Labpur on June 8 along with a BJP delegation, said that the situation had improved compared to the first week after the results, but was far from normal.
“We urged the police to ensure return of our workers. They promised help but we are not sure how much we can expect,” said Ghosh.
When asked to respond on the TMC leaders’ allegations that it was BJP workers who had terrorised several areas before the elections and issued threats to TMC workers, Ghosh said, “Such things may have happened. But many grassroots-level workers engage in hot talk during the elections. The winner is required to show some magnanimity. They can try to win over opposition workers. Why are they trying to scare them off?”
In north Bengal, Cooch Behar has been a violent district. TMC’s infighting there led to an intense period of political violence after disgruntled TMC leaders joined the BJP en masse, especially in the aftermath of expelled TMC leader Nishith Pramanik winning the Cooch Behar Lok Sabha seat in 2019 on a BJP ticket.
Soon after the Lok Sabha election results, the TMC’s Sitai MLA Jagadish Chandra Barma Basunia had to leave his home after facing threats from alleged BJP workers, even though Sitai was the only place in Cooch Behar district where TMC had a lead over the BJP. Several dozen TMC leaders from Sitai, Sitalkuchi and Dinhata areas had to stay away from their homes for several months and Basunia, the MLA, could return only after three months.
At that time, the BJP’s local leaders, including district unit president Malati Rabha had said that the TMC leaders left their houses on their own, to avoid the facing people’s anger against atrocities they had carried out.
Now, it is BJP workers from Sitai, Sitalkuchi, Dinhata, Natabari and Tufanganj areas who are running for their lives.
At Sitai, one of the seats that the TMC won in the district, the presidents of four of the BJP’s six mandal units have fled, along with more than a hundred workers and supporters by a modest estimate.
“My house came under attack on May 2 and I had to leave,” said Dibakar Kar, the president from the BJP’s Mandal number 21 that looks after parts of Sitai. He said police have implicated him in a murder case.
“A TMC worker was killed and the police named me in the FIR. Later, they caught the real culprit,” he said. Since the police have not filed the charge-sheet yet, his name remains in the complaint and he fears arrest once he returns.
Nigamananda Roy Sarkar, the president of mandal committee number 20, looking after another part of Sitai, has also been staying away. He alleged that his house came under attack on May 2.
“My brother, Swaraupananda’s house was twice vandalised and he was twice thrashed. The police arrested only one of the accused and he, too, has got bail and is roaming in the area,” Roy Sarkar alleged.
He said that the mode of terrorising political opponents has changed over the past month. TMC workers were no longer vandalising houses or looting homes like they did in the first four days after the elections, Roy Sarkar said, adding, “They have now resorted to thrashing a BJP worker whenever they are seen in public places. Returning home means living under constant terror.”
The youth wing president Bibekananda Roy and the Kishan Morcha president Ranu Barman of the mandal in Roy Sarkar’s area have also been staying away from home – in Arunachal Pradesh’s Itanagar, since mid-May.
“We all had to flee on the day of the results. My house was attacked the next day. We lived at the party’s district unit office for five days and then came to my friend’s place in Itanagar to stay until the situation improves at our village,” Roy said over phone.
Barman, a farmer by profession, is a resident of Dhomerkhata in Sitai II gram panchayat area and has been eager to at least return to his district, if only to stay at a party office.
“If we accommodate workers at one party office, police will file cases against us under the Disaster Management Act for disobeying social distancing protocols,” said a BJP district unit leader.
Malati Rabha, the BJP’s Cooch Behar district unit president said several BJP workers who were still staying out of their villages were desperately looking to migrate to other states with whatever jobs they can find.
The TMC’s response
The district’s TMC leaders rubbished the BJP’s charges. “Absolutely baseless allegations. The district is entirely peaceful,” said the TMC’s district unit president Partha Pratim Roy before snapping the line.
Basunia, the Sitai MLA, said, “Roy Sarkar is lying and is very much in the locality. The BJP is spreading lies to defame the government.” He also said that the BJP, after having unleashed terror in the aftermath of the Lok Sabha elections, has lost all right to talk of terror now.
But is preventing any kind of retribution part of the ruling party’s task? Basu replied, “We have prevented it.”
Udayan Guha, the TMC’s former MLA from Dinhata, lost this election by 67 votes to the TMC’s Cooch Behar MP, Nishith Pramanik. Now that Pramanik has chosed to retain his Lok Sabha membership, a by-election is on the cards. Guha faced an attack, allegedly from BJP workers, on May 6. He had a fracture on his right arm and his bodyguard suffered head injuries. Guha said that there might be some BJP workers who were staying away.
“There are BJP workers wanted by police in criminal cases. There are other who had unleashed such a reign of terror since the Lok Sabha elections that now they fear retribution…Still, if they contact us, we will ensure their safe return,” said Guha.
He also said that the BJP has vanished from Dinhata since the attack on him. “There is literally no presence of the BJP in the area since then. It is difficult to say which of their organisers are still with the BJP,” he said.
Notably, from June 4, the day he returned to Dinhata after undergoing treatment in Kolkata, posters and hoardings appeared in different parts of the town with photos of the attack on Guha, the state of his hand and the X-ray report.
Two of these images were originally shared by Guha himself on social media, targeting governor Jagdeep Dhankhar for allegedly having turned a blind eye to the attack on him while regularly raising the issue of alleged violence on BJP workers.
“Until these wounds disappear, Mr. Dhankhar will have to pay repeated visits to Dinhata to console the BJP workers,” he wrote in a Facebook post on May 30.
After his return, one of the first things Guha did was to facilitate four BJP panchayat members’ joining of TMC. They were members of Bhetaguri gram panchayat where the BJP MP lives and the only panchayat in Dinhata that the BJP held.
Guha has publicly announced that in another week, there will be no one in Dinhata to carry the BJP’s flag.
The larger picture
The BJP’s state unit general secretary Sayantan Basu said that the party’s estimate of workers and supporters displaced from their homes due to political terror is around 30,000 to 35,000. He said such incidents happened in the districts of North 24-Parganas, South 24-Parganas, Uttar Dinajpur, Bardhaman, West Midnapore and East Midnapore.
The TMC’s leaders called this ‘a gross overstatement.’ The party also highlighted how about 10 TMC workers were killed by alleged BJP workers since the results and how the Centre’s team or the Governor have paid no visit to any of these families. However, there is no report of any TMC worker having been displaced from his or her home.
BJP leaders in the district of Birbhum, Cooch Behar and East Midnapore admitted that the administration did help in bringing some of their supporters back but alleged that some of their workers were being picked up by the police soon after their return.
No senior bureaucrat agreed to speak on record, saying that the high court was already hearing a case in this regard and the state government was submitting its responses in writing before the court.
The case in the high court was filed on May 7 by BJP leader and advocate Priyanka Tibrewal. At the end of May, a five-judge bench headed by acting Chief Justice Rajesh Bindal set up a three-member committee to ensure the return of people displaced from the Entally area in Kolkata due to political violence. After they all returned within a week, the court expanded the model to the whole of the state.
Amidst this legal battle, the BJP’s own house appears to be in turmoil, with veteran leader and former Meghalaya and Tripura governor Tathagata Roy taking repeated digs at the party’s state and national-level leadership for failing to stand by workers facing violence.
On June 2, Roy wrote in a tweet:
A very close person came crying today. Said a few thousand men who had worked for BJP hv bn driven out by Trinamooli goons. They will possibly have to pay hefty sums of money to be allowed to return. I am helpless. Of the state leaders KSA have run away. D doesn’t receive calls!
— Tathagata Roy (@tathagata2) June 2, 2021
While he used only the initials of the names, who he was targeting was quite clear. ‘KSA’ was construed as BJP’s central leaders in-charge of Bengal, Kailash Vijayvargiya, Shiv Prakash and Arvind Menon and ‘D’ was taken to be a reference to Dilip Ghosh, the party’s state unit president.
Responding to his tweet, senior TMC leader and minister Chandrima Bhattacharya requested Roy to share with her a list of the names of such BJP workers.
“Sir, requesting you to share further details on this matter so we may urgently help everyone return home safely irrespective of their party affiliation. We also assure that strict disciplinary action will be initiated against anyone found involved in such intimidation tactics,” she wrote back.
Roy thanked her for the gesture and, as of June 7, was ready with a list to send her.
Dilip Ghosh, however, on June 8, announced that the party will launch a dharna across the state from June 23 in which the MLAs and MPs will also take part.